Where there’s fire, there’s smoke.
In spite of the grave dangers from flames and heat, the greatest health hazard of wildfires is from smoke, which contains thousands of individual elements, including harmful particles and gases.
This includes fine (PM2.5 – pollutants 2.5 microns or smaller in diameter) and ultrafine (PM1 or PM0.1 - pollutants 1 micron or smaller in diameter) particles.
Both types of particles penetrate deep into your lungs but the most dangerous of the two are ultrafine particles, which once in your lungs, can be absorbed into the bloodstream and then reach any organ or area of your body.
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There are groups of individuals that are more in danger for severe health problems from wildfire smoke, such as:
- Young children whose lungs are still developing and have less body mass
- Pregnant women
- Older adults
- Individuals with a pre-existing respiratory disease including asthma, emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and COPD
- Individuals with a circulatory disease including high blood pressure, vascular diseases, and cerebrovascular conditions, all of which increase the risks of heart attacks, heart failure, stroke, and sudden death from cardiac arrhythmia.
Protect yourself from wildfire smoke
One of the most effective ways to stay safe in smoke-affected areas is to stay inside if possible.
However, simply staying indoors will not keep your family completely safe from wildfire smoke.
“The problem with staying indoors is that small particles from the smoke will eventually make their way inside your home, through cracks and gaps in the building, and become trapped,” says Frank Hammes, global CEO of IQAir.
Hammes suggested that families create a “safe room” in their homes when outdoor air is contaminated by wildfire smoke.
Even if there is not an active wildfire in your area, smoke levels can be unhealthy because wildfire smoke can travel great distances. In 2020, smoke from wildfires in the western United States was detected in Europe, nearly 5,000 miles away (1).
The best way to gauge if smoke levels are high in your community is by checking the air quality, either with a low-cost air quality monitor or by following an air quality index.
When smoke levels are high, you will appreciate having designated a safe room in your house.
What makes up a wildfire safe room
To create a safe room, choose an area of the house that you can isolate from the rest of the house. It should be large enough for everyone and meet their needs, as in, have a bathroom within.
Then, when it is time to retreat to your safe room:
- Close all windows and doors.
- If you have a portable room air purifier, as long as it does not produce ozone, move it to this room or area.
- If you have a whole-house air purification system, make sure it is on at a comfortable temperature, but set to recirculation not the fresh air mode.
- Have portable fans available to keep things cool, or electric heaters (remember, wildfires are occurring in winter more and more) to warm things up.
- Do not use gas or propane stoves or furnaces as those add to the pollution in the air.
- Wipe surfaces with a damp cloth or mop to remove any particles that found their way in and settled
- Keep activity levels low to keep breathing rates low
- And of course, no smoking, and no candles, incense, or aerosol products
As soon as the air quality improves, open windows and doors to air the area out and switch your HVAC system to the fresh air intake setting. But be sure to continue to monitor air quality and return the safe room to operational if the air quality worsens.
They say that luck is when preparation meets opportunity. Luck helps people survive natural disasters, but upon digging deeper we see what this idiom truly means: we make our own luck.
With wildfire seasons in North America getting longer and more severe, we can take control of our luck. A proper wildfire safe room benefits the health of your entire household.
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