As the California Wildfires roar into a second week, those residents lucky enough to escape the flames worry what consequences could result in inhaling the smoke.
What is in wildfire smoke?
According to the EPA, smoke emanating from forest and community fires may include any of the following:
- Carbon monoxide, which competes with oxygen in the blood
- Carbon dioxide, a respiratory byproduct
- Wood particles
- Acrolein – used as a pesticide
- Plastics, and those byproducts after incineration
- and thousands of different respiratory irritants.
According to the EPA,
Smoke is composed primarily of carbon dioxide, water vapor,
carbon monoxide, particulate matter, hydrocarbons and other
organic chemicals, nitrogen oxides, trace minerals and several
thousand other compounds. The actual composition of smoke
depends on the fuel type, the temperature of the fire, and the
wind conditions. Different types of wood and vegetation are
composed of varying amounts of cellulose, lignin, tannins and
other polyphenolics, oils, fats, resins, waxes and starches, which
produce different compounds when burned.
What symptoms may individuals experience?
Some may have no idea they are breathing in harmful compounds that could affect their lungs and heart. However, many may experience:
- Difficulty Breathing
- Chest Pain
- Mucous Production
- Racing Heart (palpitations)
- Exacerbation of their lung disease including COPD, asthma, chronic bronchitis
- Exacerbation of heart conditions such as angina, heart attack, and cardiac arrhythmias.
- Increased susceptibility to new lung infections as well as flu
What are PM2.5s?
PM2.5 are particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter that are present in pollution and wildfire smoke that can penetrate deeply into the lung linings. Larger, coarse particles 10 micrometers in diameter are called PM10. Both impair lung function as they inflame the lungs and interfere with the work of alveoli that need to oxygenate the blood. Moreover the small particles can use this pathway to enter the blood stream. Although the direct health impacts of the fine particulate matter is not clearly defined it is believed that increased PM2.5 levels increase the risk of lung and heart disease as discussed above.
Lungs and alveoli (Image from ThoughtCo.)
Symptoms may begin at levels greater than 55 µg/m3 .
Which individuals are the most at risk?
- Infants and Children
- Elderly individuals
- Those with chronic lung disease, including asthma and emphysema
- Those at risk for heart disease and stroke
- Those with diabetes
- Pregnant women
- Those with chronic allergies
How can residents protect themselves?
Avoiding the area of wildfires is paramount. Additionally, the following may be considered:
- Avoid outdoors until air quality reports improve. Do not rely on how “clear” the air looks.
- Take heed of wind and air quality advisories.
- Recirculate the air in your home and car.
- Keep windows closed.
- Consult with your medical provider to monitor blood pressure, heart rhythm, lung function and refill any medications you may need BEFORE you feel symptoms.
- Be wary of facemasks sold as PM2.5 safe as many do not protect against the very small particles. Respirator masks labelled N95 or N100 may provide SOME protection against particulates but not against the toxic fumes such as formaldehyde and acrolein.
Daliah Wachs, MD, FAAFP is a nationally syndicated radio personality on GCN Network and Board Certified Family Physician