Experts Weigh In On How To Protect Yourself From Wildfire Smoke


Prolonged exposure to wildfire smoke is causing unhealthy and even hazardous levels of air pollution in regions across North America, including parts of the Midwest, the mid-Atlantic, and the East Coast.

Wildfires not only bring about immediate physical destruction but also generate a wave of health problems as they release harmful particulate matter and toxic gases into the air. Experts explain that the smoke from wildfires can cause a number of adverse health problems, such as scratchy throats, stinging eyes, and headaches to extremely severe reactions, like difficulty breathing and even heart attacks.

These pollutants can affect people living thousands of miles from the fire zones, and understanding the risks of taking precautions is crucial.

Rebecca Saari, PhD, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, said “Wildfires are the largest environmental health risk factor contributing to premature deaths worldwide.”

In a recent study, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge estimated that smoke from human-ignited fires was responsible for the premature deaths of 20,000 Americans in 2018 alone.

Sadly, many of these fires take an extremely long amount of time to end. And with the Canadian governmentpredicting higher-than-normal fire activity across most of the country due to the 2023 wildfire season because of “ongoing drought and long-range forecasts for warm temperatures.” Moreover, experts also believe that these wildfires are due to climate change.

Because of this particular outlook, experts believe that it’s important for people to know not only how wildfire smoke can harm your health, even if you don’t live close to any wildfires, as well as how to protect yourself.

How Wildfire Smoke Affects Health

The U.S. National Weather Service warns that wildfire smoke can make people feel unwell, and it may lead to various health issues, including:

  • Headaches
  • Irritated eyes and sinuses
  • Runny nose
  • Increased coughing and a scratchy throat
  • Fatigue
  • Chest tightness

Timothy Daum, MD, a pulmonologist with the University of Michigan Health–West in the city of Wyoming says, “If you feel extreme shortness of breath or chest pain that’s concerning, you will want to get to an emergency room or call 911.”

Who’s Most Vulnerable?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) highlights that specific groups are at higher risk when exposed to wildfire smoke. These include:

  1. Adults over 65: Elderly individuals are more susceptible to the adverse effects of air pollutants.
  2. Children: Kids with developing lungs are at risk
  3. Pregnant women: Pregnant women face heightened risks.
  4. People with underlying lung conditions: Those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, and bronchitis are at greater risk of breathing difficulties.
  5. Heart Disease Patients: Individuals with heart conditions are susceptible to issues like heart attacks, stroke, and arrhythmia, as the particles from wildfire smoke can trigger inflammation and have adverse effects throughout the body.

Purvi Parikh, MD, an allergist and immunologist with NYU Langone Health in New York City and a spokesperson for the Allergy and Asthma Network, says “Smoke adds insult to already injured lungs.”

As Dr. Daum points out, pollutants caused by wildfire smoke can also aggravate chronic cardiovascular issues. People with heart disease should be on the alert for signs of heart attack, stroke, and arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat).

“When these small particulate matter get into a person, they set up inflammation and adverse consequences throughout the body,” says Dr. Daum.

Moreover, air pollution can weaken the immune system, making individuals more susceptible to respiratory viruses such as the flu, RSV, and COVID-19. Research from Harvard University has linked even a slight increase in particulate matter in the air to a 15% rise in the COVID-19 death rate. While the long-term effects of wildfire smoke remain uncertain, exposure to air pollution is considered a risk factor for lung cancer by Cancer Research UK.

Otis Brawley, MD, a professor of oncology and epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, says “Damage to heart, vasculature, and lungs can be permanent, and it can be fatal.”

The Danger of Fine Particles

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) emphasizes that fine particles from wildfire smoke, specifically those measuring PM2.5 (particulate matter with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers), pose the greatest threat to health. These tiny particles, only 3% of the diameter of a human hair, can penetrate deep into the lungs and impair their function.

The EPA deems it safe to breathe air with PM2.5 levels below 35 micrograms per cubic meter of air (mcg/m³) within a day, as long as the yearly daily average is 12 mcg/m³ or less. However, even a slight increase in PM2.5 can lead to health problems.

Why Is Wildfire Smoke So Dangerous?

While all the pollutants that wildfire smoke releases can harm your health, the EPA says that fine particles from wildfire smoke pose the biggest threat. According to an article published in the Journal of Thoracic Disease, these particles are measured as PM2.5, atmospheric particulate matter that has a diameter of fewer than 2.5 micrometers.

These minute pollutants, which are only 3 percent of the diameter of a human hair, are particularly dangerous. The body can filter out many coarser particles, however, PM2.5 can penetrate deep into the lungs and impair their function.

As per the director of air pollution and health research at Stanford University in California, Mary Prunicki, MD, warns that it doesn’t take too much of a rise in PM2.5 to cause health problems to arise.

“With just a 10-unit increase in PM2.5, you’ll see an uptick in emergency room visits and hospital admissions for heart attacks, strokes, arrhythmias, and severe breathing problems related to asthma, COPD, or bronchitis,” she says. “When the level reaches 200 it’s like smoking almost 9 or 10 cigarettes a day, and that’s for everyone — babies and older people included.”

Dr. Prunicki believes we will see increased PM2.5 levels more frequently. “With climate change, wildfires are happening so much more frequently and more intensely,” she says. “More extreme weather also means more winds, so it doesn’t surprise me that even a place as far from Canada as New York City is getting air pollution like this.”

Protecting Yourself From Wildfire Smoke

Here are the steps you can take to shield yourself from the harmful effects of wildfire smoke:

  • Stay Indoors: Minimize exposure to smoky air by staying indoors with windows and doors closed. If you have an air-conditioner, use it, but ensure that the fresh-air intake is closed, and the filter is clean. People without air-conditioning can seek refuge in air-conditioned community centers.
  • Limit Outdoor Exercise: When air quality deteriorates, engage in indoor, moderate-intensity exercises to avoid overexertion.
  • N95 Masks: If you must be outdoors for an extended period, wear a snug-fitting N95 mask. Regular cloth or surgical masks are less effective.
  • Air Purifiers: Consider using air purifiers equipped with HEPA filters, as they can help remove harmful particulates from indoor air. Consumer Reports has shown that the best air purifiers can reduce particle concentrations by up to 85%.

Using Online Air Quality Alerts to Help You Assess Your Risk

Furthermore, online air quality alerts, such as those provided by IQAir and the EPA’s AirNow, can help you assess the air quality in your area. Monitoring major pollutants like ground-level particulate matter, carbon monoxide, ozone, and sulfur dioxide can provide valuable information about your risk.

Air quality indexes (AQI) that measure pollutants can guide you, with levels between 50 to 200 causing significant health complications for sensitive groups and anything above 200 being considered “hazardous.” It’s essential to pay close attention to these alerts during wildfire events.