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Sacramento area residents have been experiencing unhealthy air quality due to the Camp Fire in Butte County.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has air quality in the Sacramento area at 311, as of 3 p.m. The area has been experiencing air quality that rivals some of the worst in the world.

1. Dangers of wildfire smoke

The danger that wildfire smoke presents has to do with the small particles it leaves behind in the air.

They act as irritants for the heart and lungs when people breathe, and, in high concentrations, they can cause runny noses, coughs, phlegm, wheezing, and difficulty breathing.

While not everyone will have issues with the wildfire smoke, there are vulnerable populations who should stay on top of the air quality issues. Some of the vulnerable include those with respiratory conditions or weak immune systems, who might experience respiratory symptoms, impacts to lung function, difficulty in removing things like pollen from the lungs.

For children, they might experience the following symptoms from the wildfire smoke:

  • chest pain and tightness
  • difficulty breathing
  • wheezing
  • coughing
  • nose, throat and eye burning
  • dizziness

RELATED: "California Wildfires: The New Normal" is ABC10's new 9-part series on how wildfires are changing lives across Northern California.

2. Impacts of wildfire smoke

On November 12, the Air Quality Index was showing ranges of 150 to 200. For perspective on health impacts, Dr. Nicole Braxley of Mercy San Juan Medical Center said being outside in that air quality was the equivalent of smoking 22 cigarettes.

Braxley added that people should not rely on what they see outside, because the particles causing the unhealthy air quality are microscopic, about ¼ the size of a strand of hair.

When the air quality turns as bad as it has in previous days, she advises people to avoid being outside.

People she considers to be especially at risk includes those with heart and lung issues, those who are pregnant, and teenagers and children.

3. What kind of mask to wear

Some people have resorted to using respirator masks to filter out the smoke particles left behind from the Camp Fire.

Only specific kinds of masks will be effective in filtering the wildfire smoke particles. If you opt for a mask, then you need to make sure it has a designation of N95, P-95, R-95, or higher. The N-95 masks will be able to filter out up to 95 percent of smoke particles.

To be effective, the masks have to applied properly.

One of the first things to do is to check the manufacturer’s instructions. In regard to how the mask fits, it will need to cover both the nose and the mouth and come into contact with smooth skin for an air-tight seal. It won’t work properly for people with facial hair or beards.

Both straps on the mask should be used to hold it in place and prevent air from leaking.


4. Who should wear a mask?

According to Sacramento County Public Health officials, only people near the fire, who can’t be indoors and don’t have access to filtered air, should be wearing a mask.

While some people in the Sacramento area are turning to a respirator mask to help with the smoke, the mask is not recommended for use by them by Sacramento County officials. For those outside of the fire zone, they say that the risks outweigh the benefits.

Even the EPA says that respirator masks should only be used after implementing other more effective methods of exposure reduction. People who have respiratory, heart, or other medical conditions should check with their doctor before using an N95 respirator.

Concerns include:

  • People not contacting their healthcare provider before using a respirator mask
  • Possible increase to heart and respiratory rate, work of breathing, CO2 buildup, and heat stress
  • May encourage outdoor activity, which could worsen exposure

5. How to keep kids safe from the wildfire smoke

Kids are especially at risk. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), kids breathe more air on a pound-for-pound basis than adults do. A 3-month-old infant would breathe about 35 times more air than an adult.

To protect children, it’s recommended that parents close all openings to the home, such as windows and doors, and set the air-conditioner to recirculate, if possible. High-Efficiency Particulate Air filters for the home are also recommended.

These recommendations are echoed by the AAP, the EPA, the CDPH, Sacramento County, and Butte County.

Simply staying inside with doors and windows closed can reduce exposure to air pollution by about a third, according to the EPA.

There are also designated clean air shelters. These can include:

  • public libraries
  • hospitals
  • movie theaters
  • other public buildings with a good HVAC system

Respirator masks do not work on kids

Respirator masks do not work on kids. They require an air tight seal and a proper fit to work properly and, according to AAP, these masks are not made to fit children. Other things the AAP says won’t work in filtering out the smoke particles are humidifiers and breathing through a wet washcloth.

What won't work for filtering smoke out for kids:

  • Respirator masks
  • Humidifiers
  • Breathing through a wet washcloth

The AAP also suggests keeping an eye out for situations where a child has any problem breathing, gets very sleepy, and refuses food and water. Should that occur, they suggest reducing the child's exposure to the smoke and seeking medical help immediately.

One more before you go: Devastating fires aren't just a rural problem anymore. As our climate and communities change, so does when and where wildfires will strike next. ABC10's Monica Woods shows why: