5 Simple Ways to Stay Healthy During Wildfire Pollution Alerts

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October 27, 2019

Residents of west L.A. and the San Francisco Bay Area awoke this morning to the faint yet familiar smell of smoke. Although San Francisco isn’t as smoggy as it was in November 2018, the smell is a compelling reminder that being out of range of the flames doesn’t mean that you’re safe from harm.

This past weekend, extreme 80mph winds fanned the ensuing Kincade and Sonoma fires in Northern California, burning 30,000 acres and forcing roughly 200,000 people from their homes. In Southern California, the Tick fire continues to burn in Santa Clarita for the fifth consecutive day, and yet another wind-stoked brush fire broke out in west L.A. early this morning.

In addition to stoking fires, recent hurricane-grade winds are also carrying invisible particulate matter (PM2.5) from fire sites into surrounding cities, causing air quality to plummet.  If you're located near a fire-prone region, remember these five simple (yet often ignored) rules to help protect your health from wildfire smoke:

1. Sleep With Your Windows Closed

Residents in San Francisco and other coastal Californian cities are famous for preferring natural ventilation over air conditioning. If you’re not located too far inland, outdoor temperatures are generally moderate enough to make opening a window an effective way to cool your house. 

Although sleeping with the windows open may be a force of habit, make sure to curb this impulse during air quality alerts. Wildfires increase the amount of PM2.5 in the air — microscopic particulate matter that can be inhaled deep into your respiratory tract. Even if the outdoor air looks clean, prolonged exposure to PM2.5 can lead to respiratory infections and increase your risk of developing more serious heart and lung conditions down the road. 

2. Covet Moisture

Part of the reason why wildfires are so pervasive in California during summer and autumn is due to extremely dry outdoor conditions.  During wildfire season (May through December) relative humidity levels can dip below 20 percent —  lower than the average humidity of the Sahara Desert.

When there’s too little moisture in your air, it can affect your everyday health in a variety of ways. For starters, sleeping in dry conditions can cause congestion, respiratory irritation, headaches, and dehydration — all things which will prevent you from sleeping soundly through the night. Low relative humidity can also cause skin problems, including itchiness, cracking, and irritation.

In addition to being uncomfortable, dry air congeals the mucus in your nose and throat, exposing your capillaries and leaving your body more vulnerable to infection. During wildfire season, dry air combined with high PM2.5 levels can significantly increase your risk of developing a respiratory infection.

To protect your health and comfort during wildfire season, you may need to go out of your way to get the moisture your body needs. Drink lots of water to stay hydrated and help prevent against throat irritation. In addition, use lotion daily to lock-in moisture against your skin.

Finally, invest in a humidifier for your bedroom. These days, you can get a top-rated, large room humidifier for less than $70. To get the greatest benefit out of your humidifier, make sure to replace the water and clean the tank at regular intervals to prevent mold growth. 

3. Don’t Bike to Work

It probably doesn’t come as a surprise that spending time outdoors during wildfire pollution alerts isn’t recommended. That said, some routines are hard to break, especially when outdoor conditions look deceptively safe. Around 19,000 San Francisco residents biked to work in 2017 — an activity which has become increasingly popular as bike racks and bike lanes continue to spring up throughout the state.  In L.A., the number of bike commuters is closer to 50,000.

Although biking can seem like the ultimate way to get some exercise, go green, and beat commuter traffic, exerting your heart and lungs during a wildfire-related pollution alert can be dangerous. When you exercise, your lungs inevitably work harder to take in more oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. In addition to increasing your exposure to airborne pollution, exercise naturally increases airway resistance, which can further irritate your nose, throat, and lungs.

Before you hop on your bike, check the AQI for your area and opt for other (preferably enclosed) forms of transportation when air quality alerts are in effect. If you live in the Bay Area, you can also sign up to receive text or email alerts via California’s Spare the Air website. Although wearing a respirator can help protect your lungs from pollution, they're not designed to be used during heavy aerobic activity.  

4. Invest in a Respirator Mask

The air pollution caused by the 2018 “Camp Fire” caught many Bay Area residents off guard. During the height of the fires when the smog was thickest, San Francisco resembled an apocalyptic movie, with small groups of masked people shuffling around the streets. On one such day last year, California had the worst air quality in the entire world. Suffice to say, most local hardware stores sold out of face masks a few days into the pollution crisis.

As wildfires increasingly become the rule rather than the exception, keeping a respirator mask on hand in case of emergencies is a smart precaution. Before you make a purchase, however, bear in mind the differences between a dust mask and a respirator.

Dust masks are often sold at hardware stores for light household projects. They’re typically made of a hard, papery-feeling cloth and are one-size-fits-all. Although these masks may help prevent you from inhaling particles like pollen, they are ineffective against the most harmful and prevalent component of wildfire smoke — PM2.5.

Respirators, on the other hand, are designed to filter incoming air rather than simply cover your mouth and nose, and should fit more snugly to your face. As you compare different respirator masks, look for one that’s N95 or N99 rated. The “N” rating number indicates the percentage of PM2.5 that the mask is capable of trapping.

5. Run a Fan

When you seal-off your home to the outside, it can start to feel stuffy inside. This uncomfortable feeling is usually the result of a slight increase in temperature, a decrease in relative humidity, and a spike in CO2 levels that occurs in poorly ventilated spaces. When CO2 rises, it can cause fatigue, headaches, and difficulty concentrating. Turning on a ceiling or standing fan will help to increase airflow in your space, thereby cooling you down and preventing CO2 from becoming too concentrated in a single room. If you have a central HVAC system with a built-in fan, make sure to switch your thermostat settings to re-circulate indoor air rather than taking in fresh air from outdoors.

Know What’s in The Air You’re Breathing

Outdoor pollutants such as PM2.5 can enter into your home on your shoes, clothing, pets, and vents, so simply staying indoors may not be enough to protect your health.

One of the best ways to understand how your air quality is affecting your health is to track your symptoms in relation to indoor pollution levels. Awair Element tracks indoor temperature, humidity, CO2, toxic chemicals (VOCs), and particulate matter (PM2.5) and provides real-time insight and tips to help you stay healthy.

To learn more proactive ways to protect your health during wildfire season, click the link below to read our comprehensive Wildfire Smoke Guide.