Summer is the peak period of wildfires in Colorado and the western US, so people with health challenges should be prepared to protect themselves from poor air quality.
“Last summer, for a couple of days, Colorado recorded the worst air pollution worldwide,” said Dr. Lindsey, a lung specialist and critical care physician who runs an acute asthma clinic at UCHealth University, Colorado Hospital.
This year, wildfires have been burning in New Mexico for months already, and Coloradans endured a tragic, wind-blown December blaze that devastated urban communities near Boulder.
“Climate change is here to stay. We’re increasing year-round temperatures and wildfires are the new normal,” said Halguin, who is also a professor of lung science and critical care at the University of Colorado School of Medicine at Unshutz Medical Campus.
To help people with lung and cardiovascular health challenges, Halguin has outlined the best ways to stay safe from the poor air quality associated with wildfire.
Why is wildfire smoke dangerous?
“The pollution caused by the fire causes inflammation, which can narrow the passages in our airways. It causes shortness of breath and tightness in the chest,” said Holguin.
Who is at greater risk from inhaling smokeless air from wildfires?
The short answer is that younger, elderly and sick people are more vulnerable to bad effects if they breathe air contaminated with wildfire. Furthermore, pregnant women are at greater risk if they are exposed to excessive air pollution.
“The risks are even more severe with age (children and older adults) and people with underlying lung diseases,” Holguin said. “Forest fire pollution can be very dangerous for cardiovascular patients and people with diabetes, obesity and metabolic problems.”
Read more from experts at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the dangers and risks of wildfire pollution.
Do people at high risk become sick immediately after exposure to air pollution?
Sometimes vulnerable people become sick immediately after exposure, and monitors can visit hospital ERs on days when high levels of pollution are detected.
But Holguin’s previous research has found that it is sometimes delayed.
“You are exposed to high levels of air pollution and there is a lot of inflammation. After three days we see many people coming in for help,” Holguin said.
The timing of risky exposure depends on the individual.
“For periculate matter and cardiovascular disease, exposure day is really important,” he said. “For people with respiratory illness, there may be a few days delay before symptoms worsen.”
When air quality is bad, how do people with underlying health conditions know they need medical help?
“People with respiratory and cardiovascular disease often wonder whether they should consult their doctor when air pollution levels are high,” Holguin said.
He gives this important advice to his patients: “If you ever get scared, you should get hep immediately.”
What can people do to protect themselves from wildfire smoke?
“The best way to prevent adverse effects related to wildfires is to reduce the amount of contamination you are exposed to,” Holguin said.
When wildfires are bad and air quality is poor, Halguin encourages vulnerable people to protect themselves in the following ways:
- Follow the news so you know how bad the air quality is. Anyone in the US can get local air quality information from AirNow.gov.
- If you are near an active wildfire, be prepared to evacuate. Keep 7 to 10 days of medication on hand with copies of important documents.
- If you can see or smell smoke from fires in Colorado or elsewhere in the west, that means the air quality is poor.
- Close the windows and stay inside the house.
- If you have underlying respiratory or cardiovascular disease, avoid exercising outdoors.
- Take all your medications, such as inhaled medications for asthma.
- If you have air filters in your home, use them.
- If you have a swamp cooler (also known as a vapor cooler), try to avoid running it because it will bring contaminated air from outside to your home.
Why does outdoor exercise care for people with underlying respiratory or cardiovascular problems on smoky days?
- Exercise is usually best for everyone. But people are breathing dirty air in every breath of the day when the wind is blowing from the wildfire. When you exercise vigorously, you breathe more.
- “Don’t run outdoors when pollution levels are high. You breathe more quickly and your body is exposed to higher levels of pollution, ”Holguin said.
Are smokers at greater risk when wildfires produce dangerous air?
People who smoke are at an all-time high risk of illness. Poor air quality associated with wildfire can exacerbate diseases that already hit people who smoke.
“Smokers are already putting incredibly high levels of air pollution into their lungs. They are already at high risk,” Holguin said.
In the long run, the damage caused by smoking and bad air pollution can increase the risk of lung cancer, Holguin said.
Are children at greater risk if they have lung problems and are constantly exposed to high levels of air pollution?
Yes. Studies have found that children who are constantly exposed to high levels of air pollution suffer in the long run because their lungs do not develop to their full potential. As a result, children can develop into adults with weak lungs unable to properly filter air pollution.
Are air purifiers a good idea?
Yes, they are a great idea, but it’s important to choose a cleanser that actually works.
“Choose wisely,” Holguin said.
According to experts at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the best air purifiers come with HEPA filters. Learn more from EPA pros on how to choose the right air filter.
And read about how a scientist protects his home when wildfire pollution causes air to smoke.
Do I need to wear a mask inside or outside the house to be safe from wildfires?
Although masks are protective and reduce the spread of infections throughout the COVID-19 epidemic, they unfortunately do not help people avoid inhaling polluted air related to wildfires.
Because wildfire pollution particles are so small, about 2.5 microns or less in diameter, Holguin said. Most commercially available masks do not protect people from these small particles. Therefore, wearing the mask indoors or out does not help people with lung and cardiovascular health problems.
The best way to stay safe on smoky days is to stay indoors and use an air purifier if you have one.
Is wildfire pollution bad for people who have suffered damage to their lungs in relation to COVID-19?
Researchers are not entirely sure how the remaining effects of COVID-19 infections affect people. Holguin said studies related to air pollution and COVID-19 are ongoing and the findings point to a connection to both directions.
“In areas with air pollution, there are more COVID-19 infections, and the severity of the illness can increase,” Holguin said.
At the same time, some people who are sick with COVID-19 have suffered from lung damage or do not seem to get chronic COVID and cough. Like others with lung problems, these people may be more sensitive to smoke from wildfires.
Do most people now have sensitive lungs due to COVID-19?
Researchers are still learning about all the effects of chronic COVID and other effects from widespread infections during the epidemic. Initial research shows that 30% of people who get COVID-19 suffer from chronic COVID. Some of them have lung problems while others are dealing with neurological challenges such as brain fog. (Learn more about long COVID.)
If a person is sick when the air is polluted, how can they tell the difference between a COVID-19 infection and a wildfire illness?
Holguin encourages vulnerable people to pay more attention to their symptoms and to check if they have any doubts.
“The symptoms of COVID-19 and the illness caused by air pollution are quite similar, including respiratory distress and asthma. However, wildfire does not cause fever or body pain,” Holguin said. “If you are ever in doubt, it’s important to check for COVID-19 so you can make sure you don’t have the disease and not spread it to others.”
Does smoke from fires in other states affect air quality in Colorado?
It absolutely can, Holguin said.
Depending on wind patterns, contaminated air can travel hundreds of miles.
Holguin said that Coloradoans sometimes experience a double stroke in the summer. We can get air pollution from local fires, like smoke from a fire far away from California, Oregon and Arizona.
Is anyone else at risk of being exposed to fire-related air pollution, other than sick and young and elderly people?
Yes. Holguin said firefighters can handle the most dangerous exposures.
“Think of all people with occupational exposure, such as land managers and first responders. These people are potentially exposed to concentrations many times higher than potentially fatal,” Holguin said.
During a wildfire, particle density (ie about 2.5 microns in diameter) hovers around 25 micrograms per cubic meter (or 25 mcg / m3) of air volume. Learn more about ambient outdoor air quality and how it is measured by the World Health Organization.
The concentration of harmful particles during a fire is greater than 100 mcg / m3, depending on the proximity of the fire to the fire.
“That’s more,” Holguin said.
Firefighters and first responders in active fire areas can be exposed to thousands of levels, ”Holguin said.