wildfire at night

Air Quality Index Alerts and Wildfire Smoke

Over the past several weeks, smoke from Canadian wildfires has blanketed areas over Minnesota, and it’s been spreading east, now also affecting New York and other states.

You’ve likely noticed the haze outside on many days and, while driving, may have seen signs over some highways advising of an air quality alert and to limit your trips if you are able to.

What is the air quality alert about? Even though we are hundreds of miles away, the dense smoke from the intense wildfires burning in Canada is reaching across the upper midwest and eastern states here in the U.S. This same situation can happen when California wildfires are burning. The smoke reaching our area can contain potentially harmful levels of various components. The air is measured for these components each day and a number is assigned to it, with alerts going out when the number is high enough. This number is helpful, even before “hazardous” levels are reached, especially for those who work outside or are at risk, such as infants, elderly, those with COPD or Asthma, and other conditions. According to airnow.gov:

Think of the AQI as a yardstick that runs from 0 to 500. The higher the AQI value, the greater the level of air pollution and the greater the health concern. For example, an AQI value of 50 or below represents good air quality, while an AQI value over 300 represents hazardous air quality.

What are the Toxic Components of a Wildfire?

Particulates — includes both particles that are fine and invisible and those that are coarse and visible. The fine particles are worse as they can be breathed deep into the lungs.

Carbon monoxide (CO) — CO is a toxic gas that has no odor, taste or color, and it’s generated in considerable amounts during a wildfire, causing a great concern for firefighters.

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) — present in the smoke from byproducts of combustion. These compounds, such as formaldehyde, benzene or acrolein, irritate the eyes, nose, mouth and throat. They can also cause permanent tissue damage in the lungs.

Polynuclear Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) — PAHs are a type of organic compound that are particular to forest fires, fireplaces, or wood stoves. These particles can be carcinogenic.

Ellen Macdonald, a forest ecologist at the University of Alberta, says about the extreme wildfires in Canada:

“It’s an extremely intense fire, the ecosystem will be massively changed.

How? Toxins released into the air by the many burning homes and buildings and their contents – like furniture, roofing, automobiles, etc. have produced a wide range of toxins including mercury, lead and organic compounds. Maybe a dishwasher, refrigerator or tires have completely disappeared to a pile of ashes, but it’s this ash that becomes the hazard when it is mixed with water. It becomes as caustic as oven cleaner!

Then the first good rain will result in a very large “toxic surge” across land and into waterways, causing an impact on humans, fish and other aquatic organisms.

Another hazard is the unprecedented amount of CO2 that is released.

The U.S. experiences more than 100,000 wildfires each year that ravage about five million acres in total – and it’s increasing…but the fire itself isn’t necessarily the most dangerous part. These fires also generate formidable amounts of smoke, and like the Canadian fire, that smoke can reach areas hundreds of miles beyond the epicenter.

What are the Main Health Effects from Inhaling Wildfire Smoke?

Smoke particulates can enter and irritate the eyes and respiratory system. You’ll have burning eyes, runny nose, a sore throat and illnesses like bronchitis. Exposure can aggravate chronic heart and lung conditions. People who already suffer from asthma and COPD will be most affected, as well as the elderly and very young.

Possible Warning Signs of an Asthma Emergency:

  • Very rapid breathing
  • Struggling for breath
  • Fast activating (rescue) inhaler doesn’t help or you need it more than every 4 hours
  • Sucking in skin above breastbone and between ribs
  • Being really tired/ lethargic (because of the work of breathing)
  • Finding it hard to speak – you can’t finish a sentence
  • Nostrils flaring out
  • Pale, grey, sweating
  • Blue lips or nail beds

Possible Warning Signs of an COPD Lung Attack:

  • Chest pain
  • Blue lips or fingers
  • Confusion
  • Drowsiness
  • Extreme shortness of breath

How Can You Protect Your Family’s Health During a Smoke Advisory?

Authorities recommend that residents stay inside. If you live close enough to the fire that there is ash residue outside, wipe your feet, and those of your children and pets when they come inside. Remember, toxins remain in the ash.

Keep windows, doors, outside vents and dampers shut. If they are not tight fitting, then find a way to seal them.

Do not run a fan that pulls air in from the outside. These are commonly found in bathrooms and in window units.

Check the public alert systems, including the air quality reports. If you live close to the fire, you’ll want to learn of evacuation notices.

Never use ionic air purifiers as an alternative to HEPA air purifiers. These air purifiers generate ozone and other toxic byproducts.

Use air conditioners on the re-circulation setting so outside air will not be moved inside. Even if you don’t have an air-conditioning system, your heating system likely can run continuously on the ‘fan only’ cycle. This will pass air through the filter system. Use the highest quality filter available for your units. A high efficiency particulate air filter (HEPA) works best. Be sure it is clean.

If you are concerned about future incidents of wildfire smoke inhalation, you could have your heating and cooling professional install an air-purification system.

If needed, a person could use a disposable particulate respirator. This can offer some protection against harmful particles. But get advice from your physician regarding use of respirators if you have pre-existing heart and lung conditions.

Advice for Employers and Employees During a Wildfire

Stay Indoors – Be sure the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems are operating at maximum efficiency and the filters are clean. To be on the safe side, you may want to call your HVAC technician to check everything out.

Stay Alert – News reports will rate the air-quality as good, moderate, unhealthy and depending on the health and condition of your employees they may need to adjust their schedule. Working from home may even be an option.

Portable Air Cleaners – These can supplement the HVAC system according to the cleaning efficiency, air exchange rate and size of the room. Contact your HVAC expert.

Physical Activity – Heavy exertion causes workers to breathe more deeply, depositing particles deeper in the lungs.

Provide N-95 Masks or Respirators

More tools, resources, and information available at https://www.epa.gov/smoke-ready-toolbox-wildfires

Abel Heating and Cooling Can Help

At Abel Heating and Cooling we have information regarding filter and air quality systems and we’re ready to help you protect your family from the ill effects of a smoke advisory alert.

Call us at 952-472-2665 or send us a message and let’s start a conversation on how your residential or commercial HVAC system can help with wildfire smoke and air quality index alerts.