Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

Smoke Is a Big Health Risk as California Wildfires Rage On

Health + Wellness
Smoke Is a Big Health Risk as California Wildfires Rage On
A smoky haze obstructs the view of the San Francisco skyline on Aug. 24 in San Francisco, California. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

By Nneka Leiba

Deadly wildfires continue to blaze in Northern and Southern California. Dozens of people are dead, hundreds more missing and entire communities have been destroyed.


Our foremost concern is for the immediate victims. (Here's how to help.) But even hundreds of miles from the fires, much of the state is blanketed in dangerous smoke. For more than a week, the air quality in San Francisco, Los Angeles and other major cities has been classified as "unhealthy" or "very unhealthy."

The wildfires are releasing tons of pollutants into the air that will linger long after the fires are put out. Hazardous chemicals that may be present in building structures or products—such as asbestos insulation, vinyl materials, plastics, electronics casings and flame retardants—are released into the air as these things burn, creating airborne carcinogens.

The extremely fine particles in soot and smoke harm our lungs. The particulates can trigger symptoms like difficulty breathing, coughing and headaches, or worsen respiratory diseases, like asthma. They also can damage the heart, circulatory system and brain.

Health experts agree that the best defense is to stay indoors.

Although the poor air quality puts everyone at risk, children, the elderly and people with asthma, cardiovascular or respiratory diseases are particularly vulnerable. People in these groups should take extra precautions. Exposure to air pollution during pregnancy can affect thyroid hormone levels in the developing fetus, and may contribute to reduced birth weight, preterm birth and a greater risk of chronic health conditions later in life.

Monitor your local air quality using resources like the EPA's AirNOW website, and pay attention to air quality reports and advisories posted by your local government. You can also search AirNOW using your zip code to learn more about your air quality.

Here are the Environmental Working Group's (EWG) tips to staying safe in areas with poor air quality:

  • Remain indoors when you can.
  • Keep windows and doors closed.
  • Keep indoor air as clean as possible. Avoid smoking, and cook without generating fumes.
  • If you have a central air system, make sure it's fitted with the highest-rated filter it can accommodate. The American Lung Association recommends using filters with Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value or MERV, of 10 or higher. Also, operate the central air system with the fan on to ensure constant movement of air through the system.
  • Replace HVAC filters frequently so they work with maximum efficiency.
  • Consider a portable air cleaner to use in bedrooms, children's rooms and nurseries. California's Air Resources Board has a list of certified air cleaners here. We recommend air cleaners equipped with a high-efficiency, or HEPA, filter. Beware ionizing electronic air cleaners that may intentionally produce ozone, a potent respiratory irritant and the main component of ground-level smog.
  • When you have to go outdoors in an area with polluted air, consider wearing a face mask or a respirator labeled N95 or P100. These can be found at most hardware stores and will help to filter out the fine particles in smoke. Consult the California Department of Public Health's tips to make sure you're using your mask correctly and maximizing protection.
  • Whether you're inside or outside in one of these areas, avoid vigorous activity.
  • In extreme cases, consider leaving the area until the air quality improves.
A meteorologist monitors weather in NOAA's Center for Weather and Climate Prediction on July 2, 2013 in Riverdale, Maryland. Mark Wilson / Getty Images

The Trump White House is now set to appoint two climate deniers to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in one month.

Read More Show Less

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

A plastic bag caught in a tree in New Jersey's Palisades Park. James Leynse / Stone / Getty Images

New Jersey is one step closer to passing what environmental advocates say is the strongest anti-plastic legislation in the nation.

Read More Show Less

Trending

Did you know that nearly 30% of adults do, or will, suffer from a sleep condition at some point in their life? Anyone who has experienced disruptions in their sleep is familiar with the havoc that it can wreak on your body and mind. Lack of sleep, for one, can lead to anxiety and lethargy in the short-term. In the long-term, sleep deprivation can lead to obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

Fortunately, there are proven natural supplements that can reduce insomnia and improve quality sleep for the better. CBD oil, in particular, has been scientifically proven to promote relaxing and fulfilling sleep. Best of all, CBD is non-addictive, widely available, and affordable for just about everyone to enjoy. For these very reasons, we have put together a comprehensive guide on the best CBD oil for sleep. Our goal is to provide objective, transparent information about CBD products so you are an informed buyer.

Read More Show Less
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) talks to reporters during her weekly news conference at the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center on Sept. 18, 2020 in Washington, DC. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

The House of Representatives passed a sweeping bill to boost clean energy while phasing out the use of coolants in air conditioners and refrigerators that are known pollutants and contribute to the climate crisis, as the AP reported.

Read More Show Less
Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington comforts Marsha Maus, 75, whose home was destroyed during California's deadly 2018 wildfires, on March 11, 2019 in Agoura Hills, California. Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times / Getty Images

By Governor Jay Inslee

Climate Week this year coincides with clear skies in Washington state for the first time in almost two weeks.

In just a few days in early September, Washington state saw enough acres burned – more than 600,000 – to reach our second-worst fire season on record. Our worst fire season came only five years ago. Wildfires aren't new to the west, but their scope and danger today is unlike anything firefighters have seen. People up and down the West Coast – young and old, in rural areas and in cities – were choking on smoke for days on end, trapped in their homes.

Fires like these are becoming the norm, not the exception.

Read More Show Less

Support Ecowatch