The wildfire season will challenge us as we continue to adapt and respond to COVID-19. We are particularly concerned about the increased health impacts from wildfire smoke as it may worsen symptoms or increase risk for COVID-19.
Physical distancing protocols may make it more difficult to visit public clean air spaces or shelters where the air is cleaner and cooler than in our homes.
How to protect your health from the haze.
You may have noticed wildfire smoke has become part of Pierce County summers in recent years. Climate change is linked to longer, warmer, and drier summers. These conditions lead to wildfires. This new problem might be a lasting problem.
Health effects from smoke can vary greatly from person to person. Smoke contains tiny particles that are bad for your lungs, heart, sinuses and other parts of your body. Those with underlying medical conditions like asthma feel them the most. But everybody should pay attention to their own health when smoke is in the air.
Check with Puget Sound Clean Air Agency for current conditions.
Create a clean room
Wildfire smoke can make outdoor air unhealthy. A clean room can help reduce your exposure to wildfire smoke while indoors. This should be a room large enough for everyone in your household, and comfortable for extended periods of time. You should close windows and doors to keep air in the room isolated from the rest of the house. If you have an HVAC system, the Environmental Protection Agency recommends you use a high-efficiency filter—MERV 13 or higher. Learn more about how to create a clean room.
Smoke gets in your eyes (and lungs, and sinuses …)
When it’s smoky, take charge of your health:
- Check air quality before you’re active outside.
- Limit time outdoors on poor air quality days.
- Keep windows and doors closed.
- Run an air conditioner on recirculate to avoid bringing in outside air.
- Use an air cleaner with a HEPA filter.
- Don’t pollute your indoor air. Avoid candles, incense, fireplaces, gas stoves and frying food.
- Don’t smoke.
- Consider leaving the area if the air quality is poor and it’s not possible to keep indoor air clean.
- If you have asthma or COPD, have an action plan. Talk with your healthcare provider to prepare for poor air quality days.
- Don’t vacuum. It stirs up dust and smoke particles.
Use your best common sense. If it looks and smells smoky outside, don’t go for a run, mow the lawn, or allow children to play outdoors.
Listen to your body. You might have:
- Itchy or burning eyes.
- Sore throat.
- Sinus congestion.
- Heart palpitations.
- Shortness of breath.
When you should worry
If you have heart or lung disease, those might get worse.
Smoke can also cause serious problems for sensitive groups like children, pregnant women and the elderly. Children breathe more air per pound of body weight, and their lungs are still developing.
Other groups at higher risk include people who are obese, who smoke or have:
- Lung diseases such as asthma and COPD.
- Respiratory infections, such as pneumonia, acute bronchitis, colds and flu.
- Existing heart or circulatory problems.
- Prior history of heart attack and stroke.
If you’re in one of those groups and worried about your symptoms, talk to your healthcare provider. If you have shortness of breath, wheezing, chest pain, heart palpitations, extreme fatigue or difficulty moving, contact your healthcare provider immediately or call 911.
Know what air quality means to you
The Washington State Department of Ecology developed a tool to help you understand how air quality affects you and your family. The Washington Air Quality Advisory (WAQA) is a color-coded table that shows the different air pollution categories, what they mean, and the precautions you should take.
|COLOR||aIR POLLUTION cATEGORY||mEANING||pRECAUTION TO TAKE|
|Green||Good||Air pollution is minimal and there is little health risk.||None.|
These people may begin to have breathing problems.
These people should limit outdoor activities or do activities that take less effort, such as walking instead of running.
|Orange||Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups||More people than average may have breathing problems or have worsened symptoms of existing asthma or lung disease.|| Sensitive groups include:
These people should limit time spent outdoors.
|Red||Unhealthy for Everyone||Many more people than average may have breathing problems or have worsened symptoms of existing lung or heart disease.||Everyone, especially sensitive groups, should:
|Purple||Very Unhealthy for Everyone||
Some healthy people may have breathing problems. People with asthma, lung and heart disease have an increased risk of symptoms or worsening of their disease. Studies show that hospitalizations increase by 50 percent for people with lung diseases.
People with asthma, lung and heart disease, or who have had a stroke should check with their healthcare provider for advice about leaving the area. Anyone with shortness of breath, wheezing, chest pain, heart palpitations, extreme fatigue, or difficulty moving or speaking should call their healthcare provider or call 911.
More healthy people are likely to have breathing problems.
The people most susceptible are:
Studies suggest more people with asthma, lung or heart disease need medical attention.
Check with your local health department for health information. People with asthma, heart or lung disease, or who have had a stroke should check with their healthcare provider for advice about leaving the area. Anyone with shortness of breath, wheezing, chest pain, heart palpitations, extreme fatigue, or difficulty moving or speaking should call their healthcare provider or call 911.
What makes air quality unhealthy?
When enough tiny particles—called fine particulate matter—are in the air, they can cause health problems. In the winter months, Pierce County can have unhealthy air quality because of wood-burning stoves. In the summer months, ozone and wildfire smoke pose problems.
How can I protect myself and my family?
- Avoid physical exertion and stay indoors as much as possible.
- Keep doors and windows closed when possible.
- Run an air conditioner—if you have one—and set it to re-circulate.
- Shop for a high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter if someone in your home has asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or a history of heart disease or stroke.
- Make your own air filter with a box fan and about $25 in supplies if you can’t afford a HEPA filter.
Should my child play or practice sports outside?
Washington Department of Health recommends schools and other organizations cancel all outdoor activities—youth sports camps, practices, games, etc.—during times of unhealthy, very unhealthy or hazardous air quality. See the state’s recommendations for school activities based on air quality.
How can I learn about current air quality?
Just like you check the weather forecast, we encourage you to get in the habit of checking the air quality every day. You can:
- Find the most recent air quality information at the monitor nearest you through the Washington Department of Ecology’s Air Monitoring Network.
- Check the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency’s activity tracker and sign up for air quality alerts.
Air quality can change quickly and vary across different parts of the county. If you smell smoke and the air looks smoky, use your best judgement. Stay indoors when possible and postpone outdoor activities.
Should I wear a mask?
Masks can make breathing more difficult for some people. Be sure to ask your healthcare provider if a mask is right for you. To work, masks must fit correctly.
Cloth face coverings don't provide adequate protection from wildfire smoke. N95 face masks do provide adequate protection. Because of COVID-19, we recommend you save N95 or other medical-grade masks intended for healthcare workers. For more information view Labor and Industry's Mask Guidance.
- Washington Department of Health Wildfire Toolkit: Has educational handouts and information available in 11 languages.
- Washington Smoke Information: Shared information from agencies affected by wildfire smoke.
- Poor Air Quality and Your Health: Do your part to keep our air clean.
- Your Reliable Source Blog Look for news and updates when air quality is unhealthy.