An air-quality advisory remained in effect for the Wood River Valley Tuesday. The air-quality index was rated as “unhealthy” by the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality. Today’s forecast calls for “very unhealthy” conditions because of smoke from the Beaver Creek Fire.
To learn more about protecting your health during periods of smoke, read this excerpt from a new book by Colorado author Clyde Soles, “The Fire Smart Home Handbook: Preparing for and Surviving the Threat of Wildfires,” Lyons Press, 2014. The Express has exclusive permission to reprint this material. Any other uses constitute a violation of copyright.
When a forest burns, the smoke contains fine particulate matter (around 0.3 microns in diameter) and hundreds of chemical compounds including carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons, acrolein, formaldehyde, and benzene. Sometimes the smoke is so thick that streetlights turn on in the middle of the day.
If visibility is only 1.5 to 3 miles, the air quality is considered unhealthy and heavy or prolonged exertion should be reduced. When visibility is just 1 to 1.5 miles, the air quality is considered very unhealthy. When you can see less than a mile, the air is rated as hazardous. In extreme cases, the air quality can reach 1,100 micrograms of fine airborne particles per cubic meter, which is more than eight times the level considered hazardous for human health. (On a clear day in the mountains, the air may hold less than 10 micrograms of fine particles.)
Among the symptoms associated with heavy smoke are coughing, scratchy throat, irritated sinuses, shortness of breath, chest pain, headaches, stinging eyes, and a runny nose. People with asthma, lung problems, or heart disease may feel their condition worsen. Even after you evacuate, you could be in for some misery caused by smoke; children and the elderly are particularly sensitive.
When a forest burns, the smoke contains
fine particulate matter and hundreds of chemical compounds.
Don’t count on your air conditioner to clean the air, though the cooling can be a relief. Most air-conditioning systems have no intake filtration to remove smoke particulates. If your house has central air, replace the furnace filter with the best available; this can at least remove some of what circulates inside.
If you are forced to remain in an area with heavy smoke, you can get some relief by wearing respiratory and eye protection. Unfortunately, none of these are a good option if you are working hard due to difficulty of breathing and fogging.
A standard dust mask or a wet bandana will not filter out the fine particles of smoke. So you need an N95 breathing mask with an exhalation valve; these do not fit children and they don’t work if you have a beard. The mask must fit snugly enough that it is difficult to remove when you inhale and hold your breath. If it fits loosely, just throw it in the trash because it is not working.
For eye protection where there is a lot of ash falling, you can wear clear goggles but most of these don’t keep out smoke. One solution, as long as you don’t require prescription glasses, is to go to a kitchen store and buy a pair of RSVP Onion Goggles for $20.
Much of the respiratory problems from smoke arise because of damaged or paralyzed cilia. There are the tiny hairs deep inside the nose, sinuses, and smaller airways of the lungs that act like tiny oars to sweep foreign particles to the stomach. When the cilia stop beating, the body produces more mucous, which has no way of getting out.
You can help your cilia by making sure you have an adequate intake of vitamin A with a good multivitamin. Also be sure to stay hydrated; tea is particularly effective at stimulating cilia.
If you are coughing up thick phlegm, consider taking proteolytic enzyme tablets that contain bromelain and papain. Also called proteases, these digest protein and can thin mucous, thus soothing your throat (they also help with clearing your ears for flying or scuba diving). They are destroyed by stomach acid so choose tablets that either melt in your mouth or have an enteric coating so they pass into the gut. Most health food stores carry the tablets in the vitamin section.
If your nasal passages and sinuses are irritated, try the Grossan Breathe-Ease Nasal Moisturizing Kit or NeilMed Sinus Rinse ($15). These don’t burn or sting like nasal sprays with preservatives or plain saline solutions. Also avoid taking antihistamines because they may cause excessive drying of mucous.
For those with severe problems, the best option is pulsatile sinus irrigation. This is performed with an $80 machine (Grossan Hydro Pulse or SinuPulse Elite) that is more effective and less messy than neti pots, bulbs, or syringes.
Since smoke also irritates your eyes, you may want to use artificial tears. Among the best products for irritated eyes is Allergan Refresh Optive ($10). Avoid products like Visine, which constrict the blood vessels in your eyes, or gels that tend to blur vision and leave your eyelids crusty. You can also supplement with omega-3 oils (flaxseed or fish oil) to help with eye dryness.