Understanding the Impact of Wildfire Smoke
Wildfire smoke is a complex mixture of gases and fine particles that are released into the air during a wildfire. These particles, known as particulate matter (PM), can vary in size and composition. The smaller PM2.5 particles (2.5 microns or smaller) are of particular concern as they can penetrate deep into the respiratory system and cause adverse health effects.1
When wildfire smoke is inhaled, it can irritate the respiratory system and lead to a range of symptoms. Common symptoms include coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, sore throat, irritated eyes, and nasal congestion. For individuals with pre-existing respiratory conditions such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), the smoke can exacerbate their symptoms and lead to severe respiratory distress.
What are the gases we should worry about?
- Carbon Monoxide (CO): Carbon monoxide is a colorless and odorless gas produced during the incomplete combustion of organic matter. It can be highly toxic when inhaled in high concentrations, leading to reduced oxygen delivery to the body's organs. Go check out the ‘Clean Air Space’ section below for some tips.
- Carbon Dioxide (CO2): Carbon dioxide is a natural byproduct of combustion and is released in significant amounts during wildfires. While it is not directly toxic at normal concentrations, high levels of carbon dioxide can contribute to air pollution and contribute to climate change. It is estimated that 55 million tons were released in May alone from Canadian wildfires according to the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service.
- Nitrogen Oxides (NOx): Nitrogen oxides are formed during the combustion process, including that of our vehicles, and generate nitrogen dioxide (NO2). These gases can contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone and smog, and exposure to high levels can irritate the respiratory system. The American Lung Association notes that NO2 can increase the likelihood of asthma attacks, emergency room visits and hospital admissions. Researchers have also found that this traffic-related pollutant leads to higher rates of lung cancer.2
- Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs): VOCs are a diverse group of organic chemicals that can be released during wildfires. They include compounds such as benzene, formaldehyde, and acrolein. VOCs can have both short-term and long-term health effects, including respiratory irritation, headaches, and potential carcinogenic properties.3
- Sulphur Dioxide (SO2): Sulfur dioxide is produced when organic matter containing sulphur burns during wildfires. It is a gas with a pungent odour and can irritate the respiratory system, especially in individuals with pre-existing respiratory conditions.4 For industrial use, the compound is used to make sulfuric acid and is a compound in the bleaching process.5
Protecting Yourself from Wildfire Smoke:
- Use N95 or P100 Respirator Masks: When outdoors in areas affected by wildfire smoke, wearing a properly fitted N95 or P100 respirator mask can greatly reduce the inhalation of harmful particles. These masks are designed to filter out fine particles effectively and provide a tight seal around the nose and mouth. P100 masks can filter particles as small as 0.3 microns, helping to protect the lungs against the most invasive particles.6,7
- Create a Clean Indoor Environment: Use high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters in your home to remove smoke particles from the air. Portable air purifiers with HEPA filters can be particularly helpful in bedrooms and other frequently used areas as they filter out particles as small as 0.3 microns, much like the P100 masks.8 Keep windows and doors closed to prevent outdoor smoke from entering your home.
- Stay Informed: Monitor local air quality reports and stay updated on wildfire conditions in your area. Many regions provide real-time air quality indexes (AQI) that indicate the current level of pollution.9 If the air quality is poor, consider limiting your outdoor activities and staying indoors as much as possible.
- Hydrate and Moisturize: Wildfire smoke can cause dryness and irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat. Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated and use eye drops or a nasal saline spray to relieve dryness and discomfort. This includes the preservative-free Eye Drops which contain lubricating hyaluronic acid and the anti-inflammatory eye bright flower. You might also consider Dry Nose Relief which also contains hyaluronic acid, anti-inflammatory chamomile, and saline.
- Limit Time Outdoors: Minimize your exposure to wildfire smoke by limiting outdoor activities, especially during periods of high pollution. If possible, schedule outdoor activities for times when air quality is better, such as early morning or late evening.
- Create a Clean Air Space: Use monitors such as a carbon monoxide alarm which can detect the colourless, odourless gas at small concentrations. The alarm will give you and your loved ones plenty of time to vacate the premises.
- Take Precautions While Driving: When driving through areas affected by wildfires, keep your windows closed and set your car's ventilation system to recirculate the air. Consider installing a cabin air filter in your vehicle to further improve air quality.10
- Maintain a Healthy Lifestyle: Adopting a healthy lifestyle can strengthen your immune system and reduce the risk of respiratory complications. Eat a balanced diet, engage in regular exercise, and get sufficient sleep to enhance your overall respiratory health.
The impact of wildfire smoke on our health cannot be underestimated. By understanding the symptoms and taking proactive measures to protect ourselves, we can mitigate the risks associated with exposure to smoke. From wearing N95 masks to using HEPA filters and practicing good indoor air hygiene, each step contributes to safeguarding our well-being. It is essential to stay informed about local air quality conditions and adapt our activities accordingly.
By implementing these measures and prioritizing our health, we can minimize the adverse effects of wildfire smoke and ensure a safer environment for ourselves and our loved ones.
- Xing, Yu-Fei, et al. "The impact of PM2. 5 on the human respiratory system." Journal of thoracic disease1 (2016): E69.
- Hamra, Ghassan B., et al. "Lung cancer and exposure to nitrogen dioxide and traffic: a systematic review and meta-analysis." Environmental health perspectives11 (2015): 1107-1112.
- Dickinson, Gabrielle N., et al. "Health Risk Implications of Volatile Organic Compounds in Wildfire Smoke During the 2019 FIREX‐AQ Campaign and Beyond." GeoHealth8 (2022): e2021GH000546.
- Vallero, Daniel A. Air pollution calculations: Quantifying pollutant formation, transport, transformation, fate and risks. Elsevier, 2019.
- IARC Working Group. "Sulphur dioxide and some sulfites, bisulfites and metabisulfites." IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humams54 (1992): 131-188.
- Xu, Jinwei, et al. "Air-filtering masks for respiratory protection from PM2. 5 and pandemic pathogens." One Earth5 (2020): 574-589.
- Kodros, John K., et al. "Quantifying the health benefits of face masks and respirators to mitigate exposure to severe air pollution." GeoHealth9 (2021): e2021GH000482.
- Dubey, Stuti, Himanshi Rohra, and Ajay Taneja. "Assessing effectiveness of air purifiers (HEPA) for controlling indoor particulate pollution." Heliyon9 (2021): e07976.
- Mirabelli, Maria C., Stefanie Ebelt, and Scott A. Damon. "Air Quality Index and air quality awareness among adults in the United States." Environmental research183 (2020): 109185.
- Davison, Gilliane, et al. "Creating clean air spaces during wildland fire smoke episodes: Web Summit summary." Frontiers in Public Health9 (2021): 508971.