What to know: How is ash and smoke affecting my health?

By: KIRO 7 News Staff

Updated:

As thick haze hangs around the Seattle area with ash falling like snow in some areas, many have questioned health issues associated with these conditions.

Health leaders and air quality experts say that the ash and air quality are actually two different things. Here’s what to know. 

Does ash pose an additional health risk to the already lingering smoke?

Puget Sound Clean Air Quality scientist Phil Swartzendruber told KIRO 7 News that the ash is not a major health concern, like air quality conditions. Scroll down to keep reading. 


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“There is a concern (with ash). Those larger particles – those can irritate the nose, throat and eyes,” Swartzendruber said. “They don’t have the same kind of health risk as the finer particles. The finer particles are really small, so small you can’t see them; they can go deeper into our lungs. They have much different set, and a more serious set, and pose a risk for cardiovascular disease and asthma.”

A viewer submitted photo of the ash that fell in Western Washington, September 5, 2017.

Swartzendruber had the following advice for people around smoke and ask: Take notice of what’s going on if you’re feeling symptoms like irritation and a place that has filtered air, like someplace indoors.

Should people wear face masks outdoors?

A mask can help filter ash, according to officials King County Public Health, but don’t rely on paper dust masks for protection.

They are designed for large particles, like sawdust, and they can help protect from ash. King County public health officials say the masks won’t protect your lungs from the small particles found in wildfire smoke.

>> Just how bad is the air? This map will tell you

You can get some protection from respirator masks labeled N95 or N100 that filter out fine particles.

But they don’t work for everyone because they don’t always create a good seal around an individual’s face. Anyone with lung disease, heart disease, or who is chronically ill should consult a health care provider before using a mask. Wearing a mask makes it more difficult to breathe, which may worsen existing medical conditions.

An air quality map populated from department of ecology data, screen grab from Tuesday morning.

Is air quality bad enough to where people should stay inside?

Puget Sound Clean Air Quality officials have not issued a recommendation to stay indoors because the air quality is still listed as moderate.

The haze may look bad as it hangs over the skyline, but it is at substantially lower levels than when we saw during the smoky conditions in August, when the region had some of the worst air quality in the United States.

The levels of health concern with air quality are ranked as the following: good, moderate, unhealthy for sensitive groups, unhealthy, very unhealthy and hazardous.

If the health concern hits “unhealthy for sensitive groups” then Puget Sound Clean Air Quality will consider a recommendation at that time. KIRO 7 PinPoint meteorologists are following conditions to see if air quality will get worse.

“Will air quality get worse this afternoon? Not a certainty but very good chance IF we can get enough daytime heating to mix up the lowest 3,000 feet of the atmosphere, bringing even dirtier air trapped above us down to the ground,” KIRO 7 Meterologist Morgan Palmer said.

A viewer's hand after touching ash on their car.

”Now, forecasting ashfall really depends on the fire behavior and how much of that ash gets spewed skyward, but I wouldn’t expect any improvement to that part of the situation today or tonight so long as the fires rage," Palmer said. 

What are the kinds of health problems caused by wildfire smoke?

According to King County Public Health, Wildfire smoke contains small particles and other chemicals that irritate the eyes, nose, throat and lungs. It can cause your eyes to burn and your nose run, and lead to wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath and headaches. It can also aggravate existing lung, heart, and circulatory conditions, including asthma and angina.

Watch a video below about how people in the region are reacting. Scroll down to keep reading this Q&A. 

Who are in the groups that are more sensitive to wildfire smoke?

Breathing wildfire smoke isn’t healthy for anyone, and even healthy people can have symptoms when smoke levels are high. But it causes more problems for:

• Infants and children
• People with lung diseases (e.g., asthma, COPD, bronchitis, emphysema)
• People with respiratory infections (e.g., cold or flu)
• People with heart or circulatory problems, or who’ve previously had a heart attack or stroke
• Adults over age 65
• Smokers
• Diabetics
• Pregnant women

If you are in one of these groups, you should stay inside and keep indoor air as clean as possible. If you have asthma or other lung disease, make sure to follow your doctor’s directions about taking your medicines and follow your asthma management plan. Call your health care provider if your symptoms worsen.

Contact your healthcare provider if you experience heart or lung problems, and call 9-1-1 if symptoms are serious. The American Lung Association has also set up a free Lung HelpLine if you have concerns about your lungs from the smoke. To talk to respiratory therapists and registered nurses, call 1-800-LUNGUSA (1-800-586-4872).

Watch coverage on the hazy conditions below; and scroll down to keep reading.

What can everyone do to protect themselves from the smoke?

When the air quality is at unhealthy levels, avoid doing exercise or physical exertion outdoors.  It’s a good idea to check the air quality every day when smoke is present at one of the websites below.

As much as possible, stay indoors with the windows and doors closed. But with the current heat wave, it can be pretty uncomfortable if you don’t have air conditioning. If you are in one of the higher-risk groups, you could consider heading out of the area to a place that hasn’t been affected by wildfires, if that’s a possibility. You could also go to a place that has A/C, like a cooling center, indoor mall, a library, a community center, or the movies. If you have to drive, keep the windows and vents closed—most cars can re-circulate the inside air which will keep particle levels lower.

Drink plenty of water. Keeping hydrated reduces the amount of smoke that can travel deep into your lungs, so it helps keep you healthy with both the wildfires and the heat. 

What can you do to keep indoor air clean?

You can run an air conditioner if you have one, and set it to re-circulate. You should also close the fresh-air intake and change the filter regularly. Some room air cleaners can reduce indoor air pollution if they have the proper filter.  Our colleagues at the EPA say the most effective air cleaners have a HEPA filter which removes the fine particulates from smoke. Put the air filtration units in the room where you spend most of your time.

Below is a video on how you can make your own air conditioning unit. 

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