How to Keep Your Lungs Healthy During Wildfire Season
Protecting your respiratory health is crucial amid hazardous air quality
My friend Chase and I sat in my treehouse one sunny afternoon looking across the arid valley between my childhood home and the towering crest of the Sierra Nevada. We were 10. We noticed a plume of smoke rising from the hills, which soon turned into a blaze that destroyed 14,500 acres. It was my first experience with wildfire lapping at the door of my Northern California home, but it was far from the last.
In the last 20 years, the late summer months have become known as wildfire season in many Western states. Each year, drought siphons water and vitality from forests, along with the sense of security of those who live in these areas.
While many folks living in wildfire zones have done what they can to prepare for wildfire season — from creating defensible space to preparing a bug-out bag and making an evacuation plan — there’s more we can do to protect our health when the sparks start to fly.
Check the air quality index (AQI)
Step one of protecting our lungs is to know the quality of the air we’re breathing. According to AirNow.gov, the air quality index (AQI) is “EPA’s [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] tool for communicating daily air quality. It uses color-coded categories and provides statements for each category that tell you about air quality in your area, which groups of people may be affected, and steps you can take to reduce your exposure to air pollution.”
The scale goes from 0–500, with values over 300 representing hazardous air quality. In the last few years, AQI readings in the 500s have been recorded in some Western communities.
Access the AQI by going to AirNow.gov or downloading the AirNow app to your phone. Search your location to see the current AQI rating in your area. If the AQI is in the orange zone — unsafe for sensitive groups — or higher, you should think about taking precautions. Guidelines and resources are easy to find on the AirNow website.
You can also buy a device to monitor the AQI inside your home. But beware that many of these sensors have been reported as faulty. Reliable data from AirNow should be your primary source.
Your money would be better spent on improving the air quality in your home, rather than monitoring it. Installing high-quality filters with a MERV rating of 8–13 in your heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system, and replacing them regularly, are sure to help with particle pollution from wildfires.
If your home does not have an HVAC system, or you have a window air conditioning (AC) unit, you can buy room air purifiers instead. My mom, Holly, purchased two from Blueair after returning home from her bilateral lung transplant.
Make sure you are getting a HEPA filter and not one of the many other varieties that claim to combat odors, chemical pollutants, or airborne viruses. Those might actually do more harm than good, and even if not, they don’t filter particulates from wildfire smoke.
Window AC units should always have their outdoor air intake vents closed. Make sure that your AC is set to recirculate the room air rather than draw it from outside.
Batten down the hatches
Maintaining good air quality in your home only works when you seal the good air in and keep the wildfire smoke out. It’s a drag to have the windows shut on a pleasant day, but it’s crucial to keep windows and doors closed.
Once you’re sealed into your home, you should avoid creating indoor air pollution. This means not burning candles or incense, using a fireplace, or frying food. It’s also an excuse to put off vacuuming until you can safely open the windows to ventilate the space, as dust and dander are also pollutants that can be harmful to sensitive groups.
If you must go outside, don’t forget to take your N95 or P100 respirator. While they do hold up to some degree against viral contamination, surgical or cloth masks will do almost nothing to protect you from toxic wildfire smoke. A well-fitting, highly rated respirator is the best choice on a smoky day.
When using a highly rated respirator with a lung disease, you should regularly stop and check in with yourself about how you’re feeling. If you notice increased resistance to your breathing or feel dizzy or short of breath, you should remove the mask and make sure your oxygen levels are OK. It’s a good idea to keep a pulse oximeter handy whenever you go out with an N95.
Lastly, you should be prepared for other scenarios that can occur alongside wildfire. Power outages are common — even planned ones as electric companies seek to mitigate the risk of wildfire during windy days. The nonprofit group No Person Left Behind has comprehensive resources for oxygen users, including this disaster evacuation planning guide. You should also check out these great columns by Charlene Marshall and Emma Schmitz about surviving power outages as an oxygen user.
Note: Pulmonary Fibrosis News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Pulmonary Fibrosis News or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to pulmonary fibrosis.