Magazine News Volume 71, Issue 1

The Smoke Strikes Back

Written By: Sebastian Squire

Graphic By: Luke Theodossy

In what has become a seasonal norm for a climate change-stricken California, dry conditions have led to increasingly pervasive wildfires and smoke. Driven by the almost one million acre Dixie fire and the almost 250 thousand acre Caldor fire (as of September 8), darkened skies continue to settle over the Bay Area. While inconvenient, it is possible to limit exposure to smoke, something that can lead to improved long-term health.

In order to quantify and track air quality, the National Weather Service, a government organization, uses an air quality index (AQI) system. The system assigns different tiers based on the AQI: good (0-50 AQI), moderate (51-100), unhealthy to sensitive groups (101-150), unhealthy (151-200), very unhealthy (201-300) and hazardous (300 or more). According to the National Weather Service, the AQI is calculated using measurements for “groundlevel ozone, particle pollution, carbon monoxide, and sulfur dioxide,” and is measured against the Environmental Protection Agency’s national standards.

Long-term exposure to wildfire smoke can have adverse impacts on one’s health. According to Brittany Paris, a Contra Costa County Department of Health representative, “exposure to smoky air can make people feel unwell with coughing, a scratchy throat and headaches. It can also irritate residents’ lungs and sinuses.” The California Department of Public Health reinforced this concept, explaining that wildfire smoke can contain “respiratory irritants, and when inhaled deeply, can affect the lungs and the heart. Exposure to high concentrations of [smoke] can cause persistent cough, runny nose, phlegm [excess mucus in the respiratory tract], wheezing, and difficulty breathing.” Las Lomas Senior Nico Wells has also been affected by wildfire smoke, saying that in addition to causing the cancellations of cross country practices, “it has given me migraines [and] made it harder to breathe.” 

Both sources acknowledge that these effects can be particularly dangerous for those with preexisting or cardiovascular conditions; Paris noted that “older adults, pregnant women, and people who have asthma or lung or heart disease” are at particular risk. Exposure for only days or weeks can have few apparent effects. However, long-term exposure to smoke is even associated with negative effects on the health of otherwise healthy people. Contra Costa County recommends that citizens “limit their exposure when air quality is poor by staying inside when possible… limit strenuous outdoor activity or exercise–anything that makes you take more breaths or breathe deeper.” Finally, those who smoke cigarettes are at increased risk due to their increased susceptibility to cardiovascular ailments and increased particulate in their homes from smoking. 

An August 13 Harvard School of Public Health study of the relationship between cases of COVID-19 and air particulate in wildfire smoke found an “11.7% increase in COVID-19 cases, and an 8.4% increase in COVID-19 deaths” for each increase of 10 micrograms of particulate less than 2.5 micrometers in width over 28 consecutive days. These measurements refer to tiny particles, sometimes found in wildfire smoke, that are extremely difficult to filter. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) also has information on navigating wildfires and their smoke during the pandemic, explaining the importance of planning ahead, stocking up on critical supplies and avoiding smoke whenever possible, particularly when exercising. The CDC also detailed the differences in symptoms of COVID-19 and smoke inhalation: common symptoms between the two include “dry cough, sore throat and difficulty breathing,” whereas symptoms associated with COVID-19 include “fever or chills, muscle or body aches and diarrhea.” Individuals reporting the latter symptoms should contact their healthcare provider for guidance regarding possible COVID-19 infection.

The county recommends that residents take precautions to avoid exposure to wildfire smoke, such as staying indoors whenever possible, wearing N95 masks and purchasing indoor air filtration systems. The recurring theme among public health officials is staying indoors “with the doors and windows closed [which] can usually reduce exposure to air pollution by at least a third or more” per the California Department of Public Health. If possible, residents should try to avoid “smoking cigarettes, using gas, propane and wood-burning stoves and furnaces, spraying aerosol products, frying or broiling meat, burning candles and incense, and vacuuming,” during high smoke days. Using air filtration devices – including HVAC such as air conditioning with proper and unexpired filters – can also be a valuable tool in reducing the amount of particulate matter in one’s home.

As the fire season continues to grow in duration, the need for strategies to ward off the long-term effects of smoke inhalation becomes greater. The key takeaway from public health officials is to stay inside when the concentration of smoke becomes dangerous and to stay outside only when safe. Also important is following the advice of local, state and national departments of health and any advice from reputable healthcare providers.