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As wildfires continue to rage out of control across the American West, it’s getting harder and harder to breathe.
Portland, San Francisco, and Seattle hold the top three spots for major cities with the worst air quality in the entire world today, but thousands of towns large and small from Canada to Mexico are also under air quality alerts. Toxic smoky tendrils from the Western fires have even now reached as far away as Vermont.
“When entire regions are impacted by unhealthy air quality, the options are limited. There’s nowhere to go,” Melanie Carver, the Chief Mission Officer for the Asthma & Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) told me by email and text message.
Carver has asthma, and her home near Tacoma, Washington, is getting blanketed in a “super massive body of smoke” according to a tweet from the Department of Ecology. To make matters worse, strong winds recently knocked out power.
“Without power, we couldn’t run fans or air cleaners to help keep the smoke out of the house. I made myself a sheet fort to sleep under to help filter the air a little bit and wear a mask even while inside my home,” she added.
Anne Ahola Ward in San Francisco wears a “smoke-ready” mask. (Photo: Anne Ahola Ward)
No relief in sight
The U.S. Government’s Air Quality Index shows more than half of California and Oregon are currently under code-red or “unhealthy” air quality alerts, with widening swaths of code purple and amber – signifying very unhealthy and hazardous pollution levels – spreading, too.
Along with those air quality alerts come warnings to stay inside with windows and doors closed, as smoke smothers entire regions in tiny lung-damaging mixtures of burned brush, trees, houses, cars, and a host of other potentially hazardous toxins.
“Smoke from wildfires contains thousands of individual compounds,” Luke Montrose, environmental toxicologist and assistant professor of Community and Environmental Health at Boise State University, told me over the phone. The toxins include “carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), carbon dioxide, hydrocarbons, and nitrogen oxides,” he explained.
Luke Montrose in his lab at Boise State (Photo: Patrick Sweeney, Boise State University)
What doctors, scientists and other health officials worry most about is particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter (PM2.5), which is roughly 50 times smaller than a grain of sand. Toxins that tiny can breeze right past our body’s normal filters and affect even healthy lungs. But for someone with asthma, lung damage – or other chronic respiratory conditions that now might include COVID-19 – it can be deadly.
“Inhaling smoke from a wildfire can inflame a person’s lungs and airways causing them to swell so they can’t breathe,” added AFAA’s CEO and President Kenneth Mendez in an email.
Stay aware and clean up indoor air
It’s been nearly a month since the outside air was considered healthy where I live in Oakland, California. So far, we’ve had a record-shattering 25 consecutive days of Spare the Air alerts in our area. The previous record was 14-days during the devastating Camp Fire in 2018.
I use several apps to keep up-to-the minute notices on air quality, often sprinting out the door to take my dog for a walk or go for a run in the woods at the first sign of decent air. I also have asthma triggered by smoke, so I know first-hand what it’s like to jones for fresh air. The apps I recommend for alerts – with easily understandable information – are the same ones the experts I spoke with point to as well.
These include the EPA’s Smoke Sense app and the EPA’s AirNow website. I also like the IQ Air’s AirVisual app and Plume Labs: Air Quality app. All of these are free and available for iOS and Android, and let you set notifications for shifts in outside conditions.
AirNow offers air quality data for where you live. (Photo: AIrNow)
Health officials also say that you should wear an N-95 mask anytime you go outside, and that the cloth coverings and surgical masks, “will not capture small wood smoke particles,” Montrose told me. “But it’s hard to find N-95 masks” he added, since they’re still prioritized for healthcare workers battling COVID-19. On unhealthy days, it’s best to best to stay inside, and use your air conditioner if you have one. Montrose says to make sure it has a clean filter and is set to recirculate indoor air to prevent bringing additional smoke inside.
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Create a clean space
The other main advice is to create a “clean space” inside your home.
Dr. Michael Matthay, a critical care specialist and UCSF’s associate director of critical care medicine recommends people invest in air purifiers for their homes. “It’s a good idea to get portable air filters for as many rooms as you can,” he told me over the phone. “I think they make a big difference, especially for smoke that can irritate the lungs and airways.”
How clean is the air as the family makes lunch during renovations? (Photo: Jennifer Jolly)
I’ve tested several portable air purifiers over the past several years, including a dozen just in the last year alone, after I discovered how bad my own indoor air was around this time last year.
After being hoarse for nearly six months, my voice came back within one week of putting the Molekule Air Mini ($399) on my headboard, right above where I sleep at night. (My husband can’t sleep with the window open anymore either.) I’ve also had great results with the larger Molekule Air ($799), Coway Mighty ($230), Blueair’s Pure 211 ($299), and Dyson’s Pure Cool TP01 ($299). I recently received four new models of portable air purifiers to review and will add updates shortly.
Montrose also says several communities throughout the western states have designated “clean space” programs to help people take refuge in buildings with clean and cool air, but that during a pandemic using those shared spaces comes with added risk too.
The National Weather Service said wildfires burning across Northern California caused unprecedented smoke clouds.
Hang in there
One of the best bits of advice several people passed along too, is to “hang in there.” When so many of us woke up Apocalyptic-looking, vivid-tangerine colored skies earlier this week, it truly did feel like the end of the world. But that one day – when most of the actual smoke was trapped above a protective marine-layer – was actually some of the best air we might have for several days to come.
“This has been (nearly four weeks) of bad air quality,” Kristine Roselius with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District told me over the phone. “Everyone here is suffering from smoke fatigue. That’s the thing about wildfire smoke. It’s so unpredictable.”
Jennifer Jolly is an Emmy Award-winning consumer tech columnist and host of USA TODAY’s digital video show TECHNOW. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @JenniferJolly.
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