Frequently Asked Questions for Wildfires and your health Deschutes county health services
Q: What is the health threat from wildfire smoke?
A: Smoke from wildfires is a mixture of gases and fine particles from burning trees and other plant materials. Smoke can irritate your eyes or your respiratory system and worsen chronic heart and lung diseases. How much and how long you are exposed to the smoke, as well as your age and degree of susceptibility, play a role in determining whether or not you are likely to experience smoke-related health problems. If you are experiencing serious medical problems for any reason, seek medical treatment immediately.
Q: Where can I find information about the air quality in the area I live?
A. Check the local air quality index by going to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s website at http://www.deq.state.or.us/aqi/index.aspx
Q: How can I protect myself and my family from the harmful effects of smoke?
A: The best thing to do is to limit your exposure to the smoke. Strategies to decrease exposure to smoke include staying indoors whenever possible, using air conditioners (air conditioned homes usually have lower air exchange rates than homes that use open windows for ventilation), using mechanical air cleaners, keeping windows closed while driving in a vehicle, and minimizing other sources of air pollution such as smoking tobacco, using wood burning stoves, burning candles or incense, and vacuuming. Drinking lots of water can help keep your airways moist, which may reduce symptoms of scratchy throat and coughing.
Q: How can I tell if the smoke is affecting me or my family?
A: The following are useful tips for detecting early symptoms of smoke effects:
Smoke can cause coughing, scratchy throat, irritated sinuses, shortness of breath, chest pain, headaches, stinging eyes, and runny nose.
People who have heart disease might experience chest pain, rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, or fatigue.
Smoke may worsen symptoms for people who have pre-existing respiratory conditions such as heart or lung disease, respiratory allergies, asthma, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in the following ways:
- Inability to breathe normally
- Coughing with or without mucus
- Chest discomfort
- Wheezing and shortness of breath
When smoke levels are high, even healthy people may experience some of these symptoms.
Q: If I have respiratory problems and can’t reach my doctor, where should I go?
A: If you are experiencing a medical emergency, call 911 or go to the hospital emergency room immediately.
Q: Should I wear a dust mask or N95 respirator?
A: NIOSH-certified N95 respirators are masks made of filtering material that fit over the nose and mouth. The filter material will filter out some of the small particles that may be found in smoke, but only if there is a good fit to the wearer’s face. It is also important to know that N95 particulate respirators and dust masks only filter particles, not toxic gases and vapors.
Dust masks that are not NIOSH-certified may not offer protection from small particulate matter, even if properly worn.
Most people will find it difficult to use the respirators and masks correctly for general use. For instance, it is impossible to get a good seal on individuals with facial hair. It is important to make sure the respirator fits properly and that air does not leak around the sides. If it does not fit properly, the respirator will provide little if any protection, and may offer the wearer a false sense of protection.
Filtering face-piece respirators and masks can make the work of breathing more difficult and can lead to increased breathing rates and heart rates. They can also contribute to heat stress.
Because of this, respirator use by those with heart and respiratory diseases should only be done under a doctor’s supervision. Even healthy adults may find that the increased effort required for breathing makes it uncomfortable to wear a respirator for more than short periods of time. Decisions on whether to use respirators or masks as personal protection for people who must work outside should be made on a case by case, day to day basis.
Q: Will a wet towel or bandana provide any help?
A: A wet towel or bandana is not recommended. While they may stop large particles, fine ones that can still get into the lungs.
Q: What should I do if I must drive to work?
A: You can reduce the amount of smoke particles in a vehicle by keeping the windows closed and using the air conditioner along with the re-circulate feature. The car’s ventilation system typically removes a portion of the particles coming in from outside.
Q: Our community has an outdoor game scheduled this evening. Should we cancel it?
A: All persons in areas affected by heavy wildfire smoke should consider limiting outdoor activity and staying indoors whenever possible to minimize exposure to the smoke. In settings of prolonged, heavy exposure to wildfire smoke, public health and Oregon Department of Environmental Quality may recommend canceling such activities. Stay tuned to you local news for the latest information.
Q: Do air-purifying machines help remove smoke particles inside buildings?
A: Generally not. Ozone itself is a toxic air pollutant, so it’s best to avoid using air cleaners that produce ozone. For additional information, review the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency document “Ozone Generators That Are Sold as Air Cleaners” available at www.epa.gov/iaq/pubs/ozonegen.html.
Also, humidifiers and de-humidifiers are not air cleaners and will not significantly reduce the amount of particles in the air during a smoke event. High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters and electrostatic precipitators (ESP) may be helpful, however.
Anna Johnson | Public Communications Coordinator
Deschutes County Administration