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Is All That Wildfire Smoke Damaging My Lungs?

Sep 11, 2017
Originally published on September 11, 2017 9:54 am

It's an unusually bad wild fire season in the West, and for weeks people across the region have been breathing air thick with smoke.

"There's smoke from Canada, smoke from Idaho, smoke from California and Montana. There's smoke everywhere," says Greg Svelund, a spokesman for Oregon's Department of Environmental Quality.

A quick look at the Environmental Protection Agency's Air Now website shows unhealthy or hazardous air conditions all over the Pacific Northwest and into Northern California, Idaho and Montana.

"My lungs have been really sore. It's hard to breathe and it smells like we're in a campfire," says Tucker McClaran, who I found riding her bike in Portland, Ore. She's wearing what looks like a biker's face mask. "It's hot," she says. "It's chemically and it's gross."

Will her face mask really help protect her lungs? And what are the long-term health risks of breathing this acrid, yellow air?

To answer those and other health questions, I met up with Dr. Gopal Allada, a pulmonologist and critical care specialist at Oregon Health & Science University.

The sun was barely visible over downtown Portland on Wednesday because of wildfires burning east of the city in the Columbia River Gorge.
Don Ryan / AP

We're on a balcony at the university hospital, overlooking the smoky city.

"This haze represents a lot of ambient smoke particles and particulate that's burning from the trees and organic matter," Allada says. "It's hanging in the air and hitting our lungs, hitting our nose and causing problems."

The falling flecks of ash get lodged in our eyes and nose and cause irritating symptoms like itchy eyes, sore throat, headaches — even a little nausea. But it's the fine particles — particulate matter that's 2.5 microns or less in diameter — that are the biggest health hazard. They're so small you can't see them.

"This is not good for our lungs," Allada says. "When you inhale these really small particles, smaller than a few microns, they can land in your lungs and cause respiratory symptoms." They can even pass into your bloodstream.

For most people, the risk of any serious complications, like chest pain, irregular heartbeat or even heart attack, is minimal. But for people who have underlying heart conditions or respiratory illnesses — such as asthma or chronic lung disease — exposure to wildfire smoke can be serious. Other high-risk groups include people over 65, children (whose lungs are still developing) and pregnant women, because of the risk to the fetus.

The best way for everyone to minimize the risk when skies are smoky is to stay inside.

"Close all windows and doors unless it's really hot," Allada says. "And use the recirculate button in your car or on your air conditioner, so you are not bringing in new particulate matter."

If you don't have air conditioning, try spending some time in a library, mall, or community center that does, says Dr. Ann Thomas, a preventive medicine specialist with the Oregon Health Authority, which has published a pamphlet on the health effects of wildfire smoke.

A smoky pall hangs over much of the western United States in early September.
Earth Observatory/NASA

A standard dust mask that you can buy at the pharmacy won't do you much good, Thomas says. It may keep out the large pieces of ash, but it also may cause you to inhale more deeply, and it won't filter out the microscopic particles that can get into your lungs. An N95 mask can filter out 95 percent of smoke particles, but only if it's fitted properly and dirty air doesn't leak around the sides.

In addition to the particulates, there are gases like carbon monoxide and cyanide in wildfire smoke, but these are more of a danger to firefighters who work close to the flames and are exposed year after year, says Thomas.

The rest of us shouldn't worry too much about long-term damage, even if the smoke persists for a few days or weeks. "I don't want to downplay the significance of the symptoms that many of us are feeling," Thomas says. "But the good news is, they go away. They'll resolve quickly, unless you are in one of these high-risk groups."

If you are at high risk, you might want to invest in a high-efficiency particle arresting (HEPA) air filter, which costs around $50 to $300. And when air conditions are bad, avoid burning candles, frying meat, even vacuuming, which can all add more tiny particles to the air. And drink lots of water. The fluid keeps your eyes, nose and throat moist, which can help alleviate irritation.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


Right now in Your Health, we'll examine a different natural phenomenon that's engulfing the northwest of the country. That would be forest fires. It's an unusually bad wildfire season, and for weeks people have been breathing in air thick with smoke. NPR's Jane Greenhalgh reports from Portland, Ore.

JANE GREENHALGH, BYLINE: A thick, smoky haze descended across the city last week, the result of a huge forest fire that's burning a few miles away in the Columbia Gorge. It sent a cloud of ash over the entire region.

TUCKER MACLARAN: My lungs have been really sore. It's hard to breathe. It smells like we're in a campfire. (Laughter).

GREENHALGH: Tucker Maclaran is biking on the city's waterfront. She's wearing a face mask.

MACLARAN: It's hot and sticky, and really chemical-y (ph) and gross.

GREENHALGH: But is her mask doing any good?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Step all the way inside. Move all the way forward.

GREENHALGH: To get the answer to that and some other health questions, I'm taking Portland's sky tram...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You can move up a little bit up, please.

GREENHALGH: ...Up to Oregon Health and Science University. It's perched on the top of a hill.

GOPAL ALLADA: My name is Gopal Allada. I'm a pulmonary and critical care physician.

GREENHALGH: So basically, lungs are your specialty.

ALLADA: Lungs are my specialty.

GREENHALGH: From the top of the tram, the problem is obvious.

ALLADA: This haze represents a lot of ambient smoke particles and particulate that's just hitting our lungs, hitting our nose and causing problems.

GREENHALGH: Burning eyes, sore throat, headaches, even a little nausea. According to Oregon's Department of Environmental Quality, there's no good air anywhere in the Pacific Northwest, and conditions are similar in parts of Idaho, California and Montana. Allada says the biggest hazard to our lungs is not the ash, but tiny, microscopic particles.

ALLADA: Larger particles actually tend to get lodged in your nose, in your throat and can cause irritating symptoms but won't cause the respiratory symptoms that the fine particulate matter can.

GREENHALGH: For most healthy people, these conditions are unpleasant, but for people with heart conditions or respiratory illnesses it can be a real problem. The elderly, children whose lungs are still developing also need to be extra careful, as do pregnant women. Which means, if you can, stay inside.

ALLADA: Close all windows and doors unless it's really hot, and using the recirculate air button on your - either your car or on your air conditioner so that you're not continually bringing in new particulate matter.

GREENHALGH: Paper masks don't do much good. An N95 mask will offer some protection, but only if it's properly fitted. But if you're worried about long-term damage, Dr. Ann Thomas of the Oregon Health Authority says most people shouldn't be.

ANN THOMAS: I don't want to downplay the significance of the symptoms that many of us are feeling, but the good news is that they do go away. They'll resolve quickly even if it is something that persists for, you know, days to weeks, unless you're in one of these - these high-risk groups.

GREENHALGH: If you are high-risk, you might want to buy a high-efficiency particulate air filter, avoid burning candles, frying meat, even vacuuming, which can add more tiny particles to the air. Jane Greenhalgh, NPR News, Portland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.