Why Is No One Talking About This?
I’m allergic to just about everything, so I expect a little wheezing and sneezing in the summer.
But this year has been different.
As soon as July hit, I was covered head to toe in hives—by far the worst outbreak I’ve ever had. I kept waiting for them to go away, but week after week they stuck around.
I thought it was just a “me” problem until a friend came out to visit from the Midwest. She brought one of her kids—also an allergy sufferer—and sure enough, the second he stepped off the plane he inexplicably broke out in hives.
Come to find out, the common denominator wasn’t pollen, mold, or any of the usual allergy suspects. It was something far more toxic—an environmental crisis that’s escalating into a new kind of natural disaster in this country.
Wildfire Smoke: The Silent American Disaster
Growing evidence shows that wildfire smoke kills more Americans than hurricanes.
We all know the horrible, growing toll that wildfires are taking on the American West. The number of large fires have doubled between 1984 and 2015, and since then there have been 100 more fires every year than the year before.
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And while the iconic symbol of all those fires have been scorched towns and fleeing residents, the smoke—seen as far away as New York City—is taking an even greater human toll.
As Marshall Burke of Stanford University puts it:
“Nearly all the media attention during wildfires focuses on the lives and property directly in harm’s way. These are important and tragic impacts, but are likely only a very small portion of the overall societal impacts of wildfire […] “our research suggests that many more people likely perish from smoke exposure during large fire events than perish directly in the fire, and many more people are made sick” (emphasis added).
According to Burke’s research, the heavy wildfire smoke that hung over California last year led to somewhere between 1,200 and 3,000 deaths in a month. For perspective, that’s about 1,000 more deaths than all the fatalities from all twenty-first century American hurricanes combined.
Burke called these “hidden deaths.” “People who were probably already sick,” he says, “but for whom air pollution made them sicker.”
This is a new kind of natural disaster. We’ve always had wildfires and smoke, just not at this scale. As conditions in the environment change, the frequency, intensity, and size of wildfires are growing and producing smoke hazards we’ve never seen.
It’s “staggering,” said UC Merced wildfire scientist John Abatzoglou. “The alignment of ingredients for fire seasons like this past year are becoming more common […] We should expect, adapt and prepare for similar years moving forward.”
Wildfire Smoke More Toxic Than Smog?
The particles in wildfire smoke are up to 10 times more harmful than car exhaust.
Which brings me back to my mysterious case of hives.
I live in a place with chronically rotten air. Every winter, all the smog from cars and industrial activity congregates in a massive, noxious cloud that hangs over our valley for at least a month. We call it “inversion,” and it’s terrible on people with breathing issues.
But let me tell you, it’s nothing compared to reactions to wildfire smoke. In some affected regions, hospitalizations for respiratory illness go up 10%. According to researchers at UC San Diego, “the tiny particles released in wildfire smoke are up to 10 times more harmful to humans than the particles released from other sources, such as car exhaust” (emphasis added).
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The Culprit? Particles Small Enough to Enter Your Bloodstream
All pollutants are bad, which is why our body works to expel them. The cough you get when dust kicks up? That’s your body ejecting pollutants from your lungs.
Tiny particulates from wildfire smoke penetrate tissue in organs like the heart and lungs.
But there are certain pollutants, called PM 2.5 particulates, that are so small the body has no way to get rid of them. They’re tiny enough to sink directly through your skin, into your lungs and heart, and even your blood. These particulates:
- Cause inflammation in the lungs
- Weaken the immune system
- Complicate heart conditions
- Set off allergic reactions
- Destroy healthy cells
- Give you cancer.
PM 2.5 particulates are toxic, in the strictest sense of the word. And wildfire smoke is full of them.
The Bottom Line: More Wildfires, More Smoke, & More Particulates.
The bottom line is this: the ongoing (and seemingly permanent) spike in wildfires means a lasting spike in PM 2.5 particulates. In 2010, wildfire smoke accounted for just 10% of PM 2.5 particulates. In 2020, that number more than doubled to 25%. And in the West, where the smoke is the worst in the country, it makes up around 50%!
How to Prepare
Most standard home filters are not designed to catch PM 2.5 particulates, which is why we recommend you get true-HEPA air filters.
Unlike other types of pollution, there’s little we can do to stop wildfire smoke from clogging our skies. We’re at the mercy of nature at this point.
But, like any natural disaster, we can prepare.
Here are some common-sense suggestions for keeping your life as smoke free as possible:
Know if you’re at elevated risk
When it comes to wildfire smoke, even healthy people are at risk. But there are certain groups that are more vulnerable than others. If anyone in your life, including yourself, falls into any of the following categories, take extra care:
- Older adults 65 and up, likely because they are naturally at higher risk for heart and lung disease
- Children whose bodies are still developing and generally spend more time outside
- People with heart and lung disease of all ages
- Pregnant women. Smoke is a danger to them and the precious cargo they carry.
Watch the Air Quality Reports and Stay Indoors When You Can
If these fires keep up like experts are predicting, most of us should check air quality reports as part of our daily routines. Most states have their own air quality reporting apparatuses, and for those that don’t, airnow.gov is a great resource.
When air is bad, do your best to stay indoors. It’s no fun, but it’s better than exposing yourself to toxins.
Wear an N-95 mask when you are outside
I know, I know. We’ve all had it up to here with masks. However, if you have to be outside for extended periods on bad smoke days, a good mask could spare you serious health complications.
Remember, because of the size of particulates in wildfire smoke, a standard dust or surgical mask won’t do. You need an N-95 mask. They’re rated to catch particles between .1 to .3 microns in length—well within the range of PM 2.5 particulates.
Run your home air conditioner (in recirculation mode)
Here’s another reason to thank the heavens for air conditioning! Simply running your AC during smoky periods improves the air quality in your home. Running it in recirculation mode by shutting off the fresh-air intake also helps.
As always, make sure to change your filters regularly.
Get a quality true-HEPA air filter (or two)
Most standard home filters are not designed to catch PM 2.5 particulates, which is why we recommend you get true-HEPA air filters. These will easily clear smoke particles and make a very safe place to breath. They also remove bacteria, viruses, and VOCs.
Look for a unit that comes with a pre-filter, activated carbon filter, true-HEPA filter, and ion cluster capability. Ion cluster filters release charged ions that attach to and kill microbes.
Upgrade your car’s air filter
For long commutes, we recommend a HEPA filter for your car, just like your home.
It goes without saying that when you’re on the road and the air is bad, roll up your car window. But if you’re one of the millions of Americans who spend hours in their cars every week, you need more protection.
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That’s why you may want to consider upgrading your air filter. A 2014 study in the journal of Environmental Health found that “factory-installed cabin air filters remove 46% of particulate pollution, but they do not clean the air of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) or hydrocarbon pollutants.” For that, you’ll need an after-market carbon filter.
But even with a carbon filter, you won’t be clearing out the harmful PM 2.5 particulates from wildfire smoke. That’s why we recommend a HEPA filter for your car, just like your home.
Times Change, and We Must Change with Them
A wise man once said, “change is the only constant in life.” The explosion of wildfires in our country and the smoke clouding our skies day after day is proof positive of that.
Let’s change with the times, friends! If you haven’t yet, take the above advice to heart and add “wildfire smoke” to your list of disasters to prepare for.
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Yeah I’ve been getting sore throats the past couple weeks and I think it’s because of the air quality (no other symptoms) – was the worst after going on a hike.
8/19/21 past 10 days we have had some of the worst air quality in the world. CA fire smoke in the worst way. Air quality in the 160’s. I damage a lung 20 years ago and can feel the smoke.
Ron, when it was 123 degrees but the news reported 130 degrees, they may have been reporting on the “wet bulb” or heat index temperature – the “feels like” temperature. That is when high temperatures + high humidity hamper the body’s ability to cool itself, usually by slowing the evaporation of sweat that naturally cools the body.
All of the fires are man made, by that I mean we have interfered with the natural forest fire cycle over the last 100 years. Future fires will be even worse until man decides to stop the fighting them. I’ve been on the fire line and I have seen nature do a lot better job than we can.
I also live in the southwest. We had flooding in my town last week. We also had abnormally high temperatures in June and July. I don’t need the news to tell me. I saw it happening myself.
John B Whittaker
Just a NOTE for you . . . In our part of the West, where we live (SW Idaho), we have another problem: Our wildfires are on open BLM rangeland – i.e., rapidly burning wild sagebrush. The smoke from these fires is Far Worse ! – More smoke containing vastly More microscopic, Very Toxic particulates. And this smoke travels East on the wind, too.
Thank you very enlightening
MAYBE BIDEN WILL COME WITH A KILLER SHOT TO FORCE ON THE PEOPLE THAT WILL STOP US FROM GETTING SICK FROM ALL THE SMOKE.,,,HA HA HA!
I live in the southwest. We have fires every June until the Monsoons kick in. We also have great fire departments and rarely lose a building and never a life. This year was the mildest ever.We had some smoke from far off fires and nothing more. Check out the truth of these horror stories coming out of CNN and the like about the west. I’ve checked temperatures where they say there has been deadly heat waves and the temps the whole time were in the 70’s or in one city in Idaho, it was 123 but CNN reported 130. And the normal five year average for that city that month was 118. In the southwest, we had a gorgeous summer here. Nothing whatsoever to complain about. And flooding? Where?