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Health & Safety

Tips For Staying Safe When the Air is Smoky


Devastating wildfires continue to burn up and down the entire western coast of the U.S. Air quality has been extremely poor for more than a month in California, especially in the  San Francisco Bay Area, and recently Portland, Oregon had the world’s worst air quality as fires continued to spread throughout the state.

In fact, except for the fires last summer in Australia (it was winter here in the northern hemisphere), this is the worst smoke event many global health experts have ever seen.

For everyone who lives in these parts of the country, and other regions that are prone to seasonal wildfires like CollegiateParent's home state of Colorado, the poor air quality is a serious health and safety concern.

Even short-term exposure to wildfire smoke can cause burning eyes, headaches and lung irritation and right now the exposure time is lengthening beyond days to weeks and even months. People with asthma or any chronic lung or heart condition are especially vulnerable. Children and older adults are also in higher risk groups.

On top of this, we are in the midst of a pandemic and COVID-19 is a respiratory illness. It is too soon to draw scientific conclusions, but experts expect that smoke could make symptoms worse for people who are currently sick with COVID-19, and by affecting the lungs could make healthy individuals more susceptible to bacterial and viral infections — including the coronavirus. 

General Wildfire/Air Quality Safety Tips

  • If you live in an area that is prone to fires, or any other kind of natural disaster, be prepared to evacuate.
  • Sign up for local emergency notifications from your city and county (go to the websites to learn how; your local public radio station website will also have information like this). 
  • Check air quality guides. Your local newspaper should include a daily color-coded air quality forecast on the weather page. 
  • If air quality is at dangerous levels and you aren’t able to follow the steps under “How to Be Safer in Your Home,” consider relocating to a safer place or going to a designated emergency shelter.

Here's what to include in an evacuation "go bag" >

How to Be Safer in Your Home

  1. Keep doors and windows closed. Place damp towels along the bottom of exterior doors if they tend to leak air.
  2. If you have central air conditioning, run the A/C with the fresh air intake closed so that you are recirculating indoor air rather than bringing the smoke in. Regularly clean/replace the A/C filter.
  3. Buy an indoor air purifier. Be sure to choose one with a “True HEPA” filter. To create a homemade purifier, purchase a HEPA filter designed for air conditioners and attach it to a box fan (it won't be as efficient but should help).
  4. Cover air vents in bathrooms.
  5. Don’t smoke indoors, burn incense or light candles.
  6. Reduce general energy use in your home.
  7. Change your clothes when you come in from having spent time outdoors in smoky air.

How to Be Safer Outdoors

We're all wearing masks frequently outside because of the pandemic. However, casual face coverings will offer some but not complete protection from inhaled smoke particulates because the materials the masks are made of are permeable and they don't form a seal on your face.

An N95, P95 or K95 respirator with changeable filters can help protect your lungs. These are available at hardware/home repair stores and pharmacies.

Learn more about respirators here >

Take Precautions When Exercising

Breathing smoke is bad, but exercise is good. So how do you balance this?

Experts recommend that, especially when smoke is lingering for quite a while, people who want to exercise outdoors should “listen to their bodies.” If you find yourself coughing, getting a headache or feeling at all sick, stop and head back home.

Other suggestions:

  • Substitute a less strenuous activity: walk or hike rather than run, choose baseball over basketball or soccer, cycle at a moderate pace, garden.
  • Exercise early in the day when it’s cooler and potentially clearer.
  • Exercise away from traffic.
  • Hydrate before, during and after exercising.


National Center for Environmental Health, Protect Yourself from Wildfire Smoke

Oregon Public Broadcasting, How to stay safe in a smoky pandemic 

Environmental Protection Agency, Patient Exposure and the Air Quality Index

American Lung Association, 10 Tips to Protect Yourself from Unhealthy Air

Natural Resources Defense Council, How to Stay Safe from Wildfire Smoke 

BC Centre for Disease Control, Wildfire Smoke and Outdoor Exercise

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