Record setting wildfires in both California and Colorado have resulted in mass evacuations, injuries, and deaths. For residents who are in the immediate area of the fires, the dangers are unmistakable.  But, while people hundreds of miles away might not be able to see or smell the smoke, it could still be affecting their health.

What is smoke made of?

Wildfire smoke is made of gases and microscopic particles from vegetation, metals, and other building materials that have been burnt. The smaller the size of the particle, the more dangerous it is. Particles smaller than two and a half microns across (commonly referred to as Particulate Matter (PM) 2.5) are often found in wildfire smoke.

PM 2.5 can travel deep into the respiratory system, affecting the lungs and causing an array of health problems. Because of their tiny size, these particles can also travel the farthest, potentially damaging the health of people across states.  In fact, California wildfire smoke has been detected 3,000 miles away in New York City.

What kind of health issues can these microscopic particles cause?

Exposure to fine particles can cause short-term health effects such as eye, nose, throat and lung irritation, coughing, sneezing, runny nose, and shortness of breath.  PM 2.5 can also affect lung function and make respiratory illnesses like asthma worse.

Even short-term exposure to wildfire smoke can hamper the body’s ability to fight infection, leading to increased hospitalizations for asthma and pneumonia during fire season and, according to research by the University of Montana and the U.S. Forest Service, more severe flu seasons afterward.

Wildfire smoke has also been linked to cardiovascular issues. A 2015 study in Victoria, Australia showed a 6.9% increase in heart attacks, as well as an overall increase in heart disease during a two-month period as a result of exposure to wildfire smoke particles. Men and people over 65 years old were most at risk.

How can you protect yourself from smoke-related health problems?

Close your windows. While opening your windows can be a useful tool in keeping your home well-ventilated, windows should always be kept closed if there are wildfires in the region.

Clean often and thoroughly. Even the smallest smoke particles eventually drop out of the air and settle onto surfaces.  Because vacuuming can blow the particles back into the air, it’s best to mop your floors whenever possible. Clothes and linens should be washed regularly to help rid them of particles.

Shower often. Smoke particles can settle onto your hair and body.  Showering every time you re-enter your home will help minimize the smoke you bring in.

Purchase an air purifier with a True HEPA filter. The particles in wildfire smoke are generally between 0.4 and 0.7 microns. True-HEPA air filters are exceptionally good at removing particles of that size from the air. In fact, HEPA filters are so efficient at ridding the air of smoke particles that the EPA recommends residents in areas vulnerable to wildfires purchase an air purifier before a fire emergency occurs. Look for a  high quality air purifier that is particularly suited to removing the gasses and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are typically found in wildfire smoke.