Pacific Northwest fires have drawn attention to our fragility and susceptibility to alteration in something as basic as our air supply. Contaminants vary from event to event and our vulnerability varies from person to person. It’s safe to assume that toxicity, density, and length of exposure to the contaminant increases medical risk factors in direct relation to the health status of the person breathing the air.
Typically, a forest fire produces carbon dioxide, water vapor, carbon monoxide, particulate matter, hydrocarbons and other organic material, nitrogen oxides, trace minerals and thousands of other compounds depending on the uniqueness of the burning matter and surrounding conditions. The toxic effects of all dissipate with wind and weather but as we all witnessed lately the elements can still deliver sufficient toxic amounts to cause problems that are very real.
All of us probably experienced the obvious irritating effects of the elements in the air. External eye irritation and redness and perhaps a runny nose reflect the local inflammatory response to these agents in ambient air. As in all medical matters, if there are pre-existing conditions affecting eyes or nasal passages, the smoke will make them worse and require medical attention, but the vast majority of people simply have to put up with it.
The effects can be more serious if the exposure is more intense or prolonged or involves an individual whose health is compromised by acute or chronic unrelated conditions. The most obvious example would be individuals with heart and lung disease. The ability to breath easily and effectively is most imperative in these individuals. If their “work of breathing” is increased, or their ability to oxygenate or ventilate is compromised by irritation of upper and lower airways, things can get out of hand quickly and require timely intervention by medically trained individuals. It’s safe to say that any patient with substantial heart or lung ailment is at risk, i.e. not just asthmatics or coronary artery disease patients.
So how do we address this problem?
- Anticipate. Check weather reports and Air Quality Indices when fires are ongoing.
- Prepare. Make contingency plans to avoid pollutants. Stay indoors as much as possible with air filters in place. Do not plan prolonged exercise outdoors until the Air Quality Index allows.
- Be practical. If you cannot avoid exposure, wear a mask. To be effective, the mask has to fit proper and it must be designed to filter out particulate matter and fumes and gasses. The P95 mask is appropriate.
- Be careful. If you have chronic lung or heart disease do not forget your meds or oxygen if prescribed.
- Be smart. If you experience increased cough, shortness of breath, chest pain or sputum production call your Healthcare Provider and avoid more serious problems that can be avoided.