Wildfire smoke can present threat

By Marc Martinez, Fort Carson Department of Public HealthJune 21, 2023

Wildfire smoke can present threat
The smoke produced in a wildfire can affect populations hundreds to thousands of miles from the source of the fire as it is carried by the wind. (Photo Credit: Gino Mattorano) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT CARSON, Colo. — Summertime in the Rockies not only welcomes outdoor adventures, but wildfire season. While we have had a lot of rain and mild temperatures lately, as temperatures begin to rise, moisture will decrease, and winds will increase, raising the potential for wildfires.

As we have seen from recent fires in other locations, the smoke produced in a wildfire can affect populations hundreds to thousands of miles from the source of the fire as it is carried by the wind.

Warmer days lift smoke and as temperatures cool, the smoke descends toward the ground. This is important to remember as outdoor adventures could take you into areas with higher concentrations of pollutants.

Wildfire smoke is comprised of a mixture of gaseous pollutants (e.g., carbon monoxide), hazardous air pollutants (e.g., polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), water vapor and particle pollution. Particle pollution represents a main component of wildfire smoke and the principal public health threat, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Those at greatest risk are:

1. those with cardiovascular or respiratory disease

2. older adults

3. children under 18 years of age

4. pregnant women

5. outdoor workers

Strategies to Reduce Exposure Outdoors (The instructions given below are commonly part of Air Quality Index advisories during a smoke event):

Stay indoors with doors and windows closed (when appropriate): Particle levels and activity levels are generally lower indoors. It is ok to run your AC in smoky conditions. The filter will circulate indoor air, remove heat and filter particulates in the air.

Reduce activity level and time outdoors: Smoke levels can change a lot during the day, so wait until air quality is better before you are active outdoors, typically in the cooler mornings or evenings. If you must go out when particle pollution from wildfire smoke is high, spend as little time outside as possible and reduce activity levels.

Reduce smoke in your vehicle: Close the windows and vents. Run your car’s air conditioner in recirculate mode* to reduce air intake from outside. Slow down when driving in smoky conditions as visibility may be limited. (* Recirculate air button found on car's heater/air conditioner controls on dashboard)

Consider wearing a respirator: If you go outdoors when smoke levels are in the unhealthy ranges, consider wearing a respirator. Use a “particulate respirator,” as described below. Masks such as paint masks, dust masks, or surgical masks do not prevent breathing in smoke. Learn how to select and correctly use the respirator to achieve the most protection possible. For more information about respirator use, including information about the risks of wearing a respirator, see the factsheet titled, Protect Your Lungs from Wildfire Smoke or Ash.

• Choose a “particulate respirator” that has been tested and approved by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). It will have the words “NIOSH” and either “N95” or “P100” printed on it.

• Choose a respirator that has two straps to go around your head.

• Choose a size that will fit over your nose and under your chin and seal tightly to your face. Any leakage around the edge of the mask causes unfiltered air to enter and be inhaled.

• Follow instructions on the package about how to check for a tight face seal.

• NIOSH-certified respirators do not come in sizes suitable for children. Reduce children’s exposure to wildfire smoke by checking air quality, keeping them indoors, creating a clean air room, and being ready to evacuate if necessary.

Wearing a respirator, especially if it’s hot or you are physically active, can increase the risk of heat-related illness. Take breaks often and drink water. If you have difficulty breathing, get dizzy, or have other symptoms while wearing a respirator, go to a place with cleaner air and remove it.

People with heart or lung disease may be particularly sensitive to the added work of breathing, the reduction of tidal volume (the amount of air that moves in or out of the lungs with each respiratory cycle) and the accumulation of carbon dioxide accompanying the use of a N95 or P100 respirator. Consequently, health care professionals should provide guidance regarding the use of N95 or P100 respirators for such patients and, if determined appropriate, provide instruction on the proper use and precautions.

Visit https://data.coloradoan.com/fires/ to track current Colorado wildfires.

An excellent resource to know and understand the air quality in your area is Airnow.gov.