Dec 26, 2018
by Gary Pace M.D.
As Jerry Brown says, we are now in the period of “the new abnormal,” with a year-round wildfire season and recurring problems with cataclysmic fires and smoke. Since our air in Northern California has historically been very clean, we now have to learn how to assess risk and protect ourselves from the health effects of smoke.
The particles in smoke (especially very small ones, PM 2.5 with a diameter of less that 2.5 mm) are the most problematic for human health. These particles can irritate the respiratory tract and make asthma and lung problems worse. Also, these tiny components can enter the bloodstream and exacerbate heart problems. People in high risk groups-- children, pregnant women, folks with lung and heart problems, and the elderly-- need to be especially careful.
Since most of the research on long-term exposures has been with urban air pollution, not with wildfire smoke, the effects of intermittent exposures like we are experiencing are not well understood. This will hopefully change upon completion of some research that is currently underway.
Making decisions on how to respond when smoke is in the air depends on a measure called the Air Quality Index. This is officially calculated by measuring particles with certified air monitor equipment. By going to airnow.gov, you can get regularly updated readings and activity recommendations for local sites.
Also, there are several different types of unofficial monitors that can be obtained and placed at home (“Do You Know What You’re Breathing?” New York Times, 11/30/18). The data from personal monitors is being sent to a website (Purpleair.com), and detailed maps of air quality are being updated regularly. While these monitors bring in alot more data, there are some discrepancies from these readings and those of the certified sites.
The most important way to protect your family’s health is to get them away from the smoke.
Masks are generally not recommended because m ask use may give the wearer a false sense of security, which might encourage more physical activity and increased time outdoors.
Mask use may also be harmful to people with heart or lung disease because it requires more effort to breathe when the mask is on..
Another controversial issue can be school closings. In Sonoma and Mendocino Counties, if the AQI is 275 or higher, the schools generally will close. Below that level, the local superintendent will decide depending on conditions at their location and with their building. While it might seem obvious that schools should close when the air quality hits “unhealthy” ranges, the situation is a bit more complicated. Because of the HVAC systems in schools, the air quality is often better than in private homes. Another consideration is that for many children, the food provided at the schools is often a major part of their nutrition.
Other medical considerations include keeping adequate supplies of medicine with your family. There are no conventional treatments for smoke exposure, other than for asthma or specific symptoms. Many practitioners in the alternative community do have gentle measures for detoxification that may be worth considering.
With the climate changing, we can expect ongoing problems with wildfire smoke. Learning some basic information about how to protect your family can go a long way.
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