Health Hazards of Wildfire Smoke
Posted on 07/31/2019

Who is at greatest risk for wildfire smoke exposure?

* People who have heart or lung diseases like angina, arrhythmias, stroke, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) or asthma, are at high risk from wildfire smoke.

* Older adults are more likely to be affected by smoke. This may be due to their increased risk of heart and lung disease.

* Children are more likely to be affected by health threats from smoke. Children’s airways are still developing and they breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults.Also, children often spend more time playing and being active outdoors.

What’s in Smoke and How is it Harmful?

Wildfire smoke contains a mix of gases and tiny particles that come from the burning trees, plant material, and other things that are fueling the fire. According to the CDC, wildfire smoke in the air can pose a risk for anyone. Those most at risk include the elderly, pregnant women, children, and people with chronic respiratory and heart conditions.  Wildfire smoke can sting your eyes and irritate your throat and lungs, resulting in coughing, wheezing, or even an asthma attack or bronchitis. It can cause unexpected symptoms such as chest pain, rapid heartbeat, headaches, and fatigue.

Take Steps to Decrease Your Risk From Wildfire Smoke by checking local air quality reports:    

  • Washington Air Quality Advisory

  • Washington Smoke Blog

  • Keep indoor air as clean as possible. Keep windows and doors closed. Run an air conditioner, but keep the fresh-air intake closed and the filter clean to prevent outdoor smoke from getting inside.
  • Avoid activities that increase indoor air pollution. Burning candles, fireplaces, or gas stoves can increase indoor pollution. Vacuuming stirs up particles already inside your home, contributing to indoor pollution. Smoking also puts even more pollution into the air.
  • Follow the advice of your doctor or other healthcare provider. Discuss medicines and your respiratory management plan if you have asthma or another lung disease. Consider evacuating if you are having trouble breathing. Call your doctor for advice if your symptoms worsen.
  • Do not rely on dust masks for protection. Ordinary dust masks, designed to filter out large particles, will not help. They still allow the more dangerous smaller particles to pass through. Special, more expensive dust masks with an N-95 or N-100 filter will filter out the damaging fine particles, but may not fit properly and are difficult for people with lung disease to use. These masks can make it more difficult for anyone to breathe and should only be used if you must go outside. Consult with your doctor before using a mask, especially if you have a lung disease.

For more information visit the CDC website.

Protecting Outdoor Workers

When outdoor air quality is considered unhealthy or hazardous, a good way to minimize health risks for employees is to reduce their contact time with the smoke. High outside temperatures or underlying health conditions may make some workers more susceptible than others to poor air quality. To the extent practical, consider the following best practices:

  • Relocate work to less smoky areas
  • Reschedule work until the air quality improves
  • Reduce the level or duration of physical exertion
  • Where feasible, provide enclosed structures for employees to work in, where the air is filtered
  • Provide enclosed vehicles, where feasible.
  • If available, operate the air conditioning in "recirculate" mode and keep vents and windows closed

For further information on workplace safety and wildfire smoke and Washington workers visit the Washington State Labor & Industries Website.