The devastating wildfires that have ravaged parts of California brought with them plumes of smoke, shrouding some communities in a soupy black fog.
Air pollution like that is full of tiny particles that can cause health problems, ranging from temporary discomfort to long-term heart and lung diseases.
If you live in one of the worst-affected areas and cannot get away, here are some ways to minimize the harmful effects of the smoke.
What are the health risks?
Children, older adults and people with heart or lung diseases are more likely to be affected by air pollution. People should also take extra care if they have had a past health issue, such as childhood asthma, because a reocurrence is possible in some cases.
“There’s a lot of particulate matter that becomes airborne from the fires,” said Dr. Jacqueline M. Moline, vice president of occupational medicine, epidemiology and prevention at Northwell Health in Manhasset, N.Y. “That’s what causes the pollution and so many of the symptoms people have begun to have: burning of the throat, burning of the eyes, nasal congestion and irritation.”
Scientists and doctors are still studying the long-term health effects of large wildfires, but a growing body of research shows that inhalation of minuscule particles from wood fires can nestle in the folds of lung tissue and harm the immune system, possibly by priming it to overreact to irritants in the future.
“The heart and the lungs are intertwined, so any problems with the lungs will tax the heart,” he said. He added that particles inhaled in the lungs can also get into the bloodstream and cause widespread inflammation.
Reduce your exposure
If it is smoky outside, avoid outdoor exercise or other strenuous activities. Stay indoors as much as possible and keep the doors and windows closed.
Try not to introduce extra chemicals, such as aerosol cleaning products, into your living space. Keep your eyes refreshed with plain saline drops.
If you are using an air-conditioner, make sure it is recirculating rather than drawing polluted air from the outside, Dr. Moline said.
Consider getting an air purifier
If you can, invest in an air purifier, which helps to clear particles of pollution in your home. Here is an in-depth review of HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Arrestance) air purifiers for Wirecutter, a New York Times company.
Many of the purifiers available in stores only have the power to clean the air in a single room, so it might be best placed in the bedroom of someone who is at greater risk, like a child, an older adult or a person with asthma, said John Capitman, the executive director of the Central Valley Health Policy Institute and a public health professor at California State University, Fresno.
“That isn’t going to reduce the exposure of everybody else in the household,” he said.
What kind of mask is best?
A surgical mask, scarf or bandanna will not filter out many pollutants at all. A respirator mask will more effectively keep pollutants out of your airways.
You might see respirator masks with labels like N95, R99 or P100. The numbers refer to the approximate percentage of particles that are blocked, and the letters refer to the levels of oil resistance, which are not as important in dealing with smoke pollution.
Make sure the mask is fitted securely to your face, and beware of beards: Facial hair can allow air to seep in, unfiltered.
Unfortunately, there are risks associated with these masks.
Sacramento County stopped distributing them and warned that for those not living near the wildfires, their risks outweigh their benefits, in part because they can make it difficult for people to get enough oxygen. The risks include increased heart rate.
Online resources can help
If you want to keep track of the air pollution in your area, the Environmental Protection Agency has a website, AirNow, with air quality measurements that are updated hourly for communities across California and the rest of the United States.
You can also track the air quality here and see how the smoke plumes have moved over the past few days.