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Wildfire Smoke Threatens Air Quality Across The West


The San Francisco sky lit up bright orange Wednesday morning as fires continue to burn across many states in the West. 

In Washington state, officials say more than 300,000 acreshave burned since Monday in what Gov. Jay Inslee called an unprecedented and heartbreaking event. Blazes in Oregonand California are also pumping thick smoke and ash into the air, causing poor, and in some areas, hazardous air quality. 

Click here to check the air quality data where you live.

Air pollution from wildfire smoke is linked to health problems and in some cases, premature death. The World Health Organization estimates that wildfires and volcanic activity led to 2,400 deaths worldwidefrom 1998 to 2017.

In California in particular, “the air quality and the fires have been particularly dangerous this year,” says Bonnie Holmes-Gen, chief of the health and exposure assessment branch in the research division of the California Air Resources Board. 

More than a quarter of the state has experienced wildfires and poor air quality, she says. When fine particles in smoke, soot and ash are concentrated in the air, it can be “very dangerous” to human health, particularly for children, seniors, pregnant women and those with preexisting lung or heart conditions.

“They can build up in our bodies, and they can cause a number of immediate health problems ranging from itching, burning eyes and scratchy throat and shortness of breath, but also can cause long-term problems,” she says. “Anybody with existing lung or heart conditions is particularly vulnerable to smoke.”

If you can smell smoke, Holmes-Gen recommends closing your windows and turning on air conditioning to create a clean air space inside your home. She suggests using a high-efficiency air filter inside air conditioning systems so that smoke particles don’t enter the home.

“Our lungs are very sensitive,” she says. “Lungs are not meant to breathe then these amounts of hazardous particles, so it is important to protect yourself and stay indoors.”

AirNow.govprovides the latest information about air quality by zip code. Holmes-Gen says people should check the site several times a day since air quality can change as fires shift directions. 

It’s even more important to protect yourself from air pollution because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Holmes-Gen says. Preexisting lung and heart conditions can put people at a greater risk of developing severe symptoms of COVID-19 or even dying from the disease.

Research shows “people that live in areas where there’s long-term exposure to elevated levels of air pollution are at greater risk for hospitalizations or deaths from COVID-19,” she says. “Basically, smoke pollution is an assault on the lungs, and anybody who has compromised lungs or heart because of existing conditions is at higher risk.”

People in the direct vicinity of wildfires aren’t the only ones who need to be concerned about poor air quality, Holmes-Gen says. She urges people in nearby states to check the air quality in their area and take precautionary measures to protect their health.

“Our fires in California are affecting surrounding states and the smoke can have quite a wide reach,” she says. “It can travel thousands of miles. People do need to be aware of that.”

Ciku Theuri produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

A plume of smoke rises from the Ranch 2 Fire on August 15, 2020 as seen from Azusa, California. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
A plume of smoke rises from the Ranch 2 Fire on August 15, 2020 as seen from Azusa, California. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)