Protect yourself from wildfire smoke

THICK smoke from Oregon and California wildfires casts an orange pall illuminated by the sunset on Aug. 4, as seen from Parkdale, courtesy of reader Judy Hanson.

Judy Hanson
THICK smoke from Oregon and California wildfires casts an orange pall illuminated by the sunset on Aug. 4, as seen from Parkdale, courtesy of reader Judy Hanson.

As wildfire season continues to rage on, health concerns regarding wildfire smoke become more prevalent.

Wildfire smoke is dangerous because it is a mix of gases, like carbon monoxide, and fine particles from burning trees and other plant material. This particulate matter (PM) varies in size, with larger particles (PM10 or higher) irritating the eyes, nose and throat; and smaller particles (PM2.5 or smaller) getting inhaled to the deepest part of the lungs.

These smaller particles cause the biggest health concern, North Central Public Health District (NCPHD) states — and are also the hardest to filter out, rendering some common-sense solutions like wearing a wet towel, a bandana or a dust mask ineffective.

Oregon Health Authority (OHA) lists wildfires and smoke as a current issue and seasonal hazard, and NCPHD recently released a public service announcement on preventing wildfire smoke inhalation.

Wildfire smoke can irritate the eyes and the respiratory system, NCPHD said, leading to minor symptoms like watery or dry eyes, headaches, a persistent cough or a scratchy throat, as well as more serious symptoms like shortness of breath, asthma attacks, lung irritation, irregular heartbeat or a heart attack.

Some groups are more sensitive to air pollution than others, particularly those with pre-existing health conditions like asthma or other chronic respiratory diseases, heart disease, COPD or those with a history of smoking.

Seniors over 65 years of age, infants, children and pregnant women are also more likely to be affected by wildfire smoke.

Below are a few strategies for reducing health effects from smoke exposure, and staying safe during the remainder of fire season:

Be aware of air quality changes in your area: Determine the current air quality in your area using the Air Quality Index (AQI) or a visibility test.

The AQI is a national index for reporting air quality, with the goal of helping the public understand what the current air quality means to their health. The EPA explains it as “a yardstick that runs from 0 to 500;” the higher the number, the greater the health concern.

To make it easier to understand at a glance, the AQI is broken down into six color-coded categories, with each color representing the level of health concern.

• Green (0-50): Good, air pollution poses little to no risk.

• Yellow (51-100): Moderate, air quality is okay for most, but could potentially be a health concern for sensitive populations.

• Orange (101-150): Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups (USG), though most likely won’t be affected, sensitive populations should take precautions.

• Red (151-200): Unhealthy, everyone may begin experiencing minor symptoms and members of more sensitive are at risk for more serious adverse health effects.

• Purple (201-300): Very Unhealthy, everyone could experience severe symptoms and a health alert is triggered.

• Maroon (301-500): Hazardous, an emergency condition health alert is triggered.

The DEQ posts hourly AQI updates on its website ( and the Oregon Smoke Blog ( posts regular updates as well. Hood River’s closest monitoring stations are in The Dalles and just south of Government camp. At the time of publication, both stations reported yellow, or moderate, AQIs.

Though less accurate, you can also determine air quality with a simple visibility test.

If you can see over five miles away then generally, then the air quality is considered good.

If you can see five miles away but it’s generally hazy, then the air quality is moderate. Under five miles, the air is unhealthy for sensitive populations.

If you can only see three miles away, most people should minimize outdoor activity; and if you can’t see further than a mile, it’s best to avoid being outside altogether.

For reference, the horizon (the point where the earth curves) is just over three miles away for a six-foot tall person standing at ground level. “As a general rule of thumb,” the DEQ states on its website, “if you can clearly see outlines of individual trees on the horizon it is generally less than five miles away.” The DEQ recommends looking for distant targets or familiar landmarks, ideally with the sun behind you.

Regardless of how smoky it is, if you’re feeling health effects from smoke exposure, get to an area with better air quality and contact a health professional as needed.

Reduce exposure: Limit outdoor activities like sports, work and recreation as much as possible. Check that the the filter in your heating/cooling system removes very fine particulate matter and stay indoors whenever as possible. Try to reduce other air-polluting sources like wood-burning stoves, tobacco smoke, candles and vacuuming. If you need to drive, keep your windows rolled up and set your air conditioning system to “re-circulate” to reduce the amount of smoke getting into the car.

Don’t rely on masks: Goggles can significantly help with eye irritation, but as far as facial masks go, Public Health does not recommend relying on any masks for protection because most only filter out large particulates, not small particulates and dangerous gases. An N95 respirator mask can provide some protection, but since they don’t filter out gases, are hard to use and rarely fitted correctly, NCPHD only recommends using one on a case by case basis after it’s been properly fitted.

Drink plenty of water: Staying hydrated helps ease minor smoke inhalation symptoms like coughing, a scratchy throat, a runny nose and eye irritation. Running a humidifier can also provide relief, and over-the-counter eye drops can help with eye irritation.

If all else fails, get to an area with better air quality. Contact a medical professional if you’re worried about your symptoms and if you have a medical emergency, call 911 or go to the emergency room immediately.

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