Wildfire season is here and with it comes worries about keeping your home and family safe. While emergency plans are necessary for those in the vicinity of wildfires, pollutants in the air can affect air quality thousands of miles away…. Meaning that, wherever you live, you need to take precautions against wildfire smoke.
Let’s look at what’s in wildfire smoke, why it’s so dangerous, and how an air purifier can help.
But, first, let’s talk about basic safety for those closest to the fires.
The Environmental Protection Agency recommends the following guidelines for fire safety:
If there is an active fire in your area and it is very close to your house It may be best to evacuate. Fires can spread quickly and the smoke plume can make it difficult to see in an evacuation. In addition, it can be nearly impossible to keep dense smoke from building up in the indoor air. Pay close attention to local emergency alerts to know when to evacuate.
If there is an active fire close enough to cause high smoke levels, but the fire is not threatening your home: Smoke may enter your home, making it harder to breathe. Learn more about what to do in this situation and how to prepare for it. If there is an active fire in your area, follow your local news, EPA’s AirNow website, or your state air quality website for up-to-date information.
You may hear that smoke from a far-away wildfire has spread to your community, even if it is thousands of miles away. While this can happen, the amount of smoke that may reach your community from such a distance is probably very small, and may be overshadowed by local sources of particle pollution. In this situation, you can monitor your local outdoor air quality on AirNow.gov and manage your indoor air quality as you normally would.
These precautions from the EPA are vital for those living within areas in the near vicinity of wildfires. But, because wildfire smoke travels so far, it’s important for everyone to understand what makes up wildfire smoke and how to protect yourself.
What’s in wildfire smoke?
What exactly is in a wildfire’s smoke depends on 3 main things: what’s burning, how hot the fire is, and the distance between the person breathing the smoke and the fire producing it.
As the smoke travels, it’s acted upon by the sun and other chemicals in the air in a process known as “aging”. Aging can sometimes make the smoke even more toxic.
As the fires tear across the country, the smoke becomes mixed with whatever debris was burned. Smoke from wildfires contains thousands of individual compounds, including carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), carbon dioxide, hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides.
The most prevalent and dangerous pollutant in wildfire smoke is known as fine particle matter or PM2.5.
What’s so dangerous about PM2.5?
PM2.5, also known as fine particles, are particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter. PM2.5 are about 30 times smaller than a human hair.
The tiny size of these particles allows them to travel long distances, seep into our homes, and penetrate deeply into our lungs and bloodstream… causing an array of serious health concerns, including lung and heart disease.
PM2.5 are so dangerous that a recent study labeled them as “the largest environmental risk factor worldwide,” responsible for many more deaths than alcohol use, physical inactivity or high sodium intake.”
In fact, 4.2 million people die every year from breathing in large amounts of fine and ultrafine particulate matter.
Particle pollution is always present in the air that we breathe, both indoors and out. But the pollutants are so tiny that we can’t usually see them. During a wildfire, concentrations can increase so drastically that the pollution becomes visible.
Can’t we just stay inside when the pollution levels are too high?
Unless you’re in an evacuation area, it is best to stay indoors during a wildfire. Unfortunately, the air quality inside your home will also be affected since outdoor air is continuously coming into your home.
Wildfire smoke can enter your home in several ways:
- through open windows and doors, which is known as natural ventilation.
- through mechanical ventilation devices such as bathroom or kitchen fans that vent to the outdoors, or heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems with a fresh air intake.
- through small openings, joints, cracks, and around closed windows and doors through a process called infiltration.
How can we protect ourselves?
While wildfires are a serious health risk, there are some things we can do to protect ourselves and our families.
Monitor Local Air Quality
If you live near an area with active wildfires, it’s essential that you follow local news for smoke warnings and updates. Since wildfire smoke travels long distances, no matter where you live, you should be alert to air quality changes during wildfire season. AirNow.gov provides free air quality monitoring each day.
Keep outdoor air from entering your home
Generally, ventilation is helpful for improving indoor air quality. That’s because indoor air actually contains two to five times more pollutants than outdoor air. But, when there is an active wildfire, the pollution outdoors drastically increases. Keeping windows and doors shut tightly and limiting the number of times you exit and enter your home can minimize the smoke that gets into your home.
Use the right air conditioner
Wildfires often coincide with heatwaves, increasing the need for AC’s. Besides keeping your home cool, some ACs can actually lower the amount of smoke in your home. When running an AC, make sure the filter is clean and that any “fresh air” settings that bring in air from the outdoors are disabled. Never use an AC that relies on outdoor air during wildfire season.
Keep indoor pollution as low as possible:
During wildfire season, additional pollutants are constantly seeping into your home. Since indoor air quality is typically already low, it is important to minimize other sources of pollution in your home as much as possible.
Consider limiting or stopping completely the following activities when there are active wildfires in your vicinity:
- Smoking cigarettes.
- Using gas, propane, or wood-burning stoves and furnaces.
- Spraying aerosol products.
- Frying or broiling food.
- Burning candles or incense.
- Vacuuming, unless you use a vacuum with a HEPA filter.
Purchase an air purifier with a True HEPA filter.
The particles in wildfire smoke are generally between 0.4 and 0.7 microns. Air purifiers that use True HEPA air filters are excellent at removing particles of that size from the air.
HEPA filters are so effective that the Environmental Protection Agency considers them an important component of wildfire preparation.
While HEPA filters will remove particulate matter, they are not able to get rid of the harmful gases and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that wildfire smoke contains. To remove both particles and gases, look for a high-quality air purifier that contains a combination of HEPA and activated carbon filters.