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California Wildfires: How to protect yourself from poor air quality

ABC10 talked to a UC Davis medical expert about how to protect yourself from the poor air quality during wildfire season.

Wildfires are burning throughout Northern California affecting the air quality across the region.

“As of right now, our air quality will be an ongoing concern,” according to ABC10’s meteorologist Tracy Humphrey. “We have an unhealthy air quality expected well into next week. No major relief until more of the fires are extinguished.”

The San Francisco Chronicle is tracking the wildfires across the state including Northern California. 

To monitor the air quality in your area, use the U.S. Air Quality Index (AQI). The AQI operates from 0 to 500 scale; the higher the AQI value, the greater the level of air pollution, and the greater the health concern. The scale is divided into six categories, “when AQI values are above 100, air quality is unhealthy: at first for certain sensitive groups of people, then for everyone as AQI values get higher,” according to the AirNow website.

ABC10 talked to local medical expert Dr. Nicholas Kenyon, chief of the UC Davis Division of Pulmonology to learn more about how to protect yourself amidst wildfire season:

How concerned should people be about the air quality due to the wildfires? 

Dr. Nicholas Kenyon: People who have chronic lung disease, asthma, COPD, and heart disease, should be very concerned. They need to avoid the wildfire smoke as best they can.

Everybody can have some significant symptoms with exposure. At this time, it's very important that people avoid [the outdoors] as best as possible and certainly change their daily activities. I would recommend not exercising outdoors.

What are the adverse effects for Californian residents near and far from the wildfires?

Dr. Nicholas Kenyon: We can all be affected and it very much depends on the wind patterns. The smoke contains a lot of these really fine, invisible particulates that get deep into our lungs when we breathe them in. Depending on the wind patterns and the weather, we can have fairly high concentrations.

Some of the symptoms that people get are what we call ‘irritant related symptoms’. You can get itchy and watery eyes, sneezing, runny nose and a cough. Some people can feel some chest congestion and shortness of breath.

It can affect all of us, but it is very much related to the concentrations, and so some of us will be exposed to quite a bit more than others.

Should outdoor activities stop altogether until the smoke clears?

Dr. Nicholas Kenyon: Certainly exercise. Exercise is when we increase our respiratory rate quite significantly and that increases the risk of the exposure of particulates to your lungs. We shouldn't be working out in this weather.

Many folks also work outdoors and when they're out all day, they should be protecting themselves as best they can. That's where we would recommend using an N95 mask. Everybody should limit their time outdoors during this period.

Should folks who are working outdoors be consulting their doctors about the risk of pollution?

Dr. Nicholas Kenyon: Yes, it's very common during this time to get a lot of phone calls, and we're happy to answer these sorts of questions. The risk of pollution very much depends on who the person is, whether they have other illnesses, and what their concerns are. If they have symptoms of significant shortness of breath, and they work outdoors during this period, they should be talking to their doctors about what they can do. 

Whether a mask is appropriate, or whether even a couple of days off of work during this really high exposure is needed. These are individual decisions and discussions between a physician and client.

What type of mask should people be wearing to protect ourselves from wildfire smoke? Is it different from the face coverings recommended for the novel coronavirus pandemic?

Dr. Nicholas Kenyon: We realize that's very confusing right now. The masks that we wear outdoors for the novel coronavirus pandemic, the paper or the cloth masks, are really to prevent us from exhaling droplets that might get other people infected. Unfortunately, those surgical paper masks or cloth masks don't really help very much at all with the wildfire smoke. 

The wildfire smoke contains high concentrations of invisible particulates so a high-quality mask such as an N95 mask, a tight-fitting, thick, woven cover, is recommended to block the particulates of wildfire smoke.

How does the poor air quality impact the severity of COVID-19 symptoms?

Dr. Nicholas Kenyon: We don't know the answer to that question since the novel coronavirus pandemic is new, but it's something we're very much concerned about. It is possible that exposure to wildfire smoke might increase the chances of getting COVID-19, viral pneumonia.

We do know that people who vape and have had injury to their lungs seem to be more at risk for developing COVID-19. There have also been studies looking at exposure to wildfire smoke, and whether there's a slight increased risk of influenza during the influenza season and that seems to be true.

What should we know about the flu season with wildfire season amongst us?

Dr. Nicholas Kenyon: It's important to get your vaccine during flu season. I have already had patients emailing me about the vaccine. I think we're going to be encouraging early influenza vaccines. We're at the beginning of the wildfire season and the beginning of the influenza season so we need to do as much as we can to keep ourselves healthy and that is one thing that's important.

How should vulnerable populations be protecting themselves during wildfires, pandemic, and the flu season? 

Dr. Nicholas Kenyon: It is not uncommon to talk to my patients by video visits now and they tell me they have not left their home since March. These are patients who have asthma and other lung diseases. My recommendation during the wildfire season is to continue avoiding others and stay indoors. If they must go outdoors, wear N95 masks.

What can happen to your lungs if you do not wear a mask while outside in the smoke? 

Dr. Nicholas Kenyon: There has been a lot of research looking at the effects of wildfire smoke on the lungs, and because these particulates are so small and they get deep into the lung they cause inflammation in the cells in the lung and they also cause what's known as "oxidative damage." Those are the mechanisms of injury that people are looking at to see if it's causing some long term damage. 

Most of the time, those types of injuries are self-limited and go away within days to maybe a week as long as the smoke clears. But in some patients who already have some degree of lung injury, those effects can last quite a long time.

How can you protect yourself indoors? 

Dr. Nicholas Kenyon: It's important to keep the windows and doors closed. It is not always easy to protect yourself indoors though because everybody's homes are quite different. 

Some people are fortunate to have terrific air conditioner and filtration systems to keep the smoke out. However, another option is high-grade standalone cleaners called HEPA filters, which capture the vast majority of the particulate. They can go in a single room and are quite good. The idea of having a clean room these days is something that's being discussed a lot.

Wildfire smoke engulfs the outdoors right now, are you supposed to clean yourself when you come indoors?

Dr. Nicholas Kenyon: Generally, we don't make recommendations, but it is a bit different now because we don't usually see this level of ash. The ash, which is fairly large particulates, will be blocked by these paper masks, but the real concern is these fine invisible particulates, which are a really high concentration of wildfire smoke.

If you can clean the ash, that's only part of it. It's really these invisible particulates that are really the most damaging to the lungs because they get very deep in there and that's why we recommend N95 masks.

Once the wildfires subside, how long does the air quality stay like this?

Dr. Nicholas Kenyon: We know that some of the effects linger with the particulates. They tend to clear fairly quickly with the wind and the air quality index improves, but there is no doubt that some level of particulates may be around in certain environments, and it may be fairly local. 

It is important that we consider that when we are telling people that it is OK to go out, it actually might be several days before things improve significantly for us to say that there's no risk of being harmed.

When is it time to call your local physician to get medical advice related to the wildfire smoke?

Dr. Nicholas Kenyon: We know from other wildfires that when people go to the emergency room, they're usually having symptoms related to asthma or chronic bronchitis. So really, those are the symptoms that very much bother people, shortness of breath, cough, feeling like they might have a respiratory infection. If the symptoms persist for a while, and certainly if the breathing gets very difficult, then you should be seen in the emergency room.

Most of the time people are calling in with the symptoms of a cough and wanting to know whether they have a respiratory infection or not. If that goes on for a couple of days, then they should certainly call into their doctor to see what recommendations they have.

ABC10 meteorologist Tracy Humphrey says that until more fires are extinguished, Californians will continue to endure the poor air quality affecting the entire state including Central Valley and Northern California.

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