If you live in the Reno-Tahoe area, you’re probably familiar with the unpleasant air quality that comes with wildfire season in late summer early fall. This also coincides with the time of year that we love to be outdoors, swimming, mountain biking, running and hiking. As the wild fires become stronger and last longer, so does the smoke that invades and lingers in the region.
You may be wondering at what level the air quality is unsafe to be outdoors or exercise and what you can do to mitigate the health effects? The answer can depend on your age and whether you have other health issues.
Smoke inhalation can cause a range of symptoms and can have serious health effects. Common symptoms of smoke inhalation include scratchy throat, coughing, wheezing, burning eyes, fatigue, headache, runny nose, chest pain or increased heart rate. Sensitive groups are at increased risk of serious health effects, and include people with asthma, COPD, emphysema, heart failure or heart disease. Those with diabetes are at increased risk because they can have underlying cardiovascular disease. Children, pregnant women and older adults are also at increased risk.
The Air Quality Index (AQI) is a good measure of air safety during wild fire season. The air quality is considered safe when the AQI is below 50, meaning there is little to no health risk. As it rises above 50, it becomes a moderate risk, though still an acceptable level. An AQI above 100 is unhealthy for sensitive groups who can experience health effects. When the AQI hits 150, everyone may experience health effects. At 200 the health effects are more serious, and 300 or above is considered emergency conditions.
In order to protect yourself, you will need to avoid prolonged or heavy exertion when the air quality is unhealthy. Depending on the predominant pollutant, the recommendations may vary slightly. In general, sensitive groups will want to avoid exertion outdoors when the AQI is above 100 and everyone else should reduce prolonged or heavy exertion when the AQI is above 150.
When the air quality becomes unhealthy, you will also need to take steps to improve the indoor air quality of your home. First, try to upgrade the air filters in your central air system to a higher-grade filtration. If you cannot do this, you can set your system fan to the ON mode instead of Auto. Second, use high efficiency portable air cleaners. Make sure you find one that is high efficiency or HEPA and appropriate for the square footage you need to cover. Respirators are another option for protecting yourself from smoke, but will need to be a well fitted N95 or P100, and are not designed to fit children.
If you have a chronic medical condition, it’s important to plan ahead of wild fire season. Make sure you talk with your doctor to develop a plan. If you have asthma or other lung disease, make sure you know your action plan. Consider keeping a 7–10-day supply of your prescription medications and have quick and easy groceries stocked, that won’t require cooking. Grilling or frying can worsen indoor air pollution. Monitor your local air quality using sites like www.airnow.gov. For more information on wildfire smoke, check out www.cdc.gov.