By: Alyssa Kelly, ND
Seattle is in the midst of a smoke wave. A severe one, at that. Climate Central describes a smoke wave as two consecutive days with an EPA Air Quality Index of 67. Seattle’s AQI today is 185.
At AQI level 67, the particles in the air, called PM2.5, reach a concentration that can start causing adverse health effects. Some of these effects include “slowing blood flow and oxygen to the heart, developing plaque on the inner walls of arteries, and interfering with liver functions” (Climate Central). These are relatively invisible yet serious effects. One symptom of these effects can be feeling more fatigued than usual or lowered exercise tolerance. People are certainly experiencing other ill effects from the particles as well, such as cough, wheezing, difficulty breathing, headaches, and more. People who already have lung or heart diseases such as asthma, emphysema, COPD, angina, and ischemic heart disease are at risk of worsening of their disease due to the particles and their effects on blood and oxygen flow.
At level 185, these effects are more severe. It is critical that those at increased risk avoid exposure as much as possible. This includes people with heart or lung disease, people with diabetes, older adults, children (including teenagers), and those who are pregnant. Children and teenagers are at increased risk because they take in more air than adults do per pound of body weight. At this high of an AQI, even generally healthy adults should be minimizing their exposure.
If at all possible, avoid spending time outdoors and keeping windows open. In Seattle, home air conditioning is not commonplace, so try to find places with A/C where you can spend time. Movie theaters (who wants to see Crazy Rich Asians?), museums, libraries, and shopping malls are all typically air conditioned and open during the summer. For people who are trying to get a fun workout or burn some energy in kids, consider the climbing walls at REI or the Seattle Bouldering Project in addition to a typical gym.
For times when exposure is unavoidable, you can purchase N-95 or P-100 respirators at hardware stores. They must be used and fitted appropriately. Because these particles are extremely small (four times smaller than dust), dust and surgical masks will not block them from being able to reach your lungs. If you have an air conditioner at home, make sure that you are keeping your filters clean and close the fresh-air intake to avoid bringing particles into your home. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) also advises against vacuuming, which can raise up particles already in your home, and against burning anything (candles, firewood, cigarettes, marijuana, etc.), which would just increase particulates in the air.
People with heart or lung disease should make sure that they have enough of their medication, and check in with their doctors to ensure that their dosages are appropriate in the setting of this additional exposure. Those with asthma in particular should make sure that inhalers are up-to-date and have an asthma action plan in place. If anyone with asthma does not have a plan, please schedule an appointment as soon as possible.
To check the Air Quality Index where you live, go to https://airnow.gov/ and type in your location.
Stay safe and please feel free to schedule an appointment if you have questions!
The EPA on Health Effects: https://www.airnow.gov/index.