5 questions answered: How to stay safe during the pandemic when it's smoky
Smoke from more than 500 fires burning in California are making the air quality one of the worst in the world.
There are measures Californians can take to protect themselves and their families from the air pollution.
Here are five questions answered to help readers understand what it means when air is unhealthy, what they can do about it and where to get up-to-date information.
1. I don’t smell smoke. What’s the problem?
You can’t always smell dangerous pollutants in the air.
Air quality experts measure the amount of fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) in the air. According to the EPA, particles come from a variety of sources including fires.
“Particulate matter contains microscopic solids or liquid droplets that are so small, they can be inhaled and cause serious health problems,” according to the EPA’s PM 2.5 pollution website.
Smoke from fires can send large amounts of PM 2.5 into the air, and over large areas.
“Whenever things burn there’s a mixture of gases and particles,” said University of California, San Francisco pulmonologist Dr. John Balmes, an expert on the respiratory and cardiovascular effects of air pollutants.
“When you smell smoke, you are smelling the gases in the air, not PM 2.5,” Balmes said. “They go hand-in-hand near the fire source, but the particulates travel in the upper atmosphere.”
It’s possible to have bad air — air high in PM 2.5 — without smelling gases.
2. Who is especially vulnerable?
When air quality is ranked "unhealthy for vulnerable groups" it means PM 2.5, or these particles, are at levels that can cause problems for people with medical conditions, especially respiratory issues like asthma and heart or lung disease, according to AirNow. Certain age groups — older adults, children and teens — are also vulnerable to problems from bad air.
When PM 2.5 levels are so high they can hurt anyone, air is ranked "Unhealthy" — as it is now in parts of California — to "hazardous" by AirNow. In these cases, everyone should limit prolonged exposure.
The particulates "have the ability to get deep into the lung,” Balmes said. “They cause inflammation, which is the response of the body to injury of any type. When you breathe in these fine particles to your lungs it causes injury. Once there's inflammation in the lungs it can exacerbate lung conditions, but it can also exacerbate heart conditions.”
3. What can I do about bad air?
Health experts recommend:
- Limit outdoor activities.
- Remain indoors with the windows and doors closed.
- Turn on an air conditioner with a recirculation setting, like in a vehicle.
Even healthy people should reduce the amount of time they spend outdoors, if they can, the EPA warns. If you do go out, choose less strenuous outdoor activities. For example, go for a walk instead of a run.
Once smoke clears, damage from particulates in healthy adults usually heals, Balmes said.
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4. What about the coronavirus and why isn't my mask good enough to protect me from air pollution?
Poor air quality also may increase your chances of getting COVID-19 if you are exposed, but results are inconclusive at this time, Barnes said. What is known is pollutants will likely exacerbate the disease if you already have it.
Your coronavirus mask may not protect you, unless you have a mask designed to filter PM 2.5, like an N95. Those masks are scarce worldwide because of the pandemic.
"Non‐HEPA paper face mask filters and bandana-type face coverings may be helpful in reducing the spread of germs and viruses, but they are not capable of filtering out extra fine particulates that are much smaller in size," according to Shasta County Air Quality Management District officials. "Therefore, non-HEPA masks will not be helpful in protecting individuals from smoke-related impacts."
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5. Where can I check on my local air quality and how much PM 2.5 is in the area?
The AirNow website can tell you about how much particulate matter is in your area’s air. It also offers health and lifestyle advice based on that result. Go to https://www.airnow.gov/ and enter your zip code.
Jessica Skropanic is features reporter for the Record Searchlight/USA Today Network. She covers lifestyle and entertainment stories, and weekly arts feature d.a.t.e. Follow her on Twitter @RS_JSkropanic and on Facebook. Join Jessica in the Get Out! Nor Cal recreation Facebook group. To support and sustain this work, please subscribe today. Thank you.