Wildfire smoke is a major culprit for unhealthy and dangerous air quality in the Pacific Northwest, but there are several factors at play.
PORTLAND, Ore. – Wildfire season has arrived in the Pacific Northwest, and with it comes concerns about harmful air quality.
According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“The first is ground level ozone or surface ozone. And what happens here is that nitrogen mixes with some organic compounds and produces this ozone, but more of it is produced with high heat and lots of sunlight,” said Dr. James Poloexecutive medical director for Regence Blue Cross Blue Shield of Oregon.
Emissions from industrial facilities and electric utilities, motor vehicle exhaust, gasoline vapors and chemical solvents are some of the main sources of ground level ozone.
Then there is particulate pollution or particulate matter, which includes things like dust, dirt, soot, and smoke.
Ozone and ground-level particulate pollution can affect anyone, but it bothers some more than others.
“For young children, they may be a little more at risk because they have developing respiratory systems,” said Dr. Polo. “And then people who have any lung disease or heart condition will be more at risk. And then the elderly too.”
For people who are generally healthy, the effects can be anything from wheezing and coughing to difficulty breathing, especially if you’re outdoors in poor-quality air for a long period of time, according to Dr. Polo.
For most people, these symptoms should disappear when the air quality improves. If not, then Dr. Polo recommends contacting your primary care physician.
Exposure to poor air quality can also worsen existing conditions, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
“Over time, if you’re exposed, it can lead to heart disease or even stroke. So it’s very important to monitor air quality,” said Dr. Polo.
The best way to do this may be as simple as tuning into the morning news to receive updates on air quality warnings. You can also find the daily air quality index online at places like airnow.gov, iqair.com AND KGW.com.
Here is a summary of the Air Quality Index:
Green means good: At 0-50, this means that air quality is satisfactory and air pollution poses little or no risk.
Yellow means moderate: At 51-100, this means the air quality is acceptable. However, there may be a risk for some people, especially those who are extremely sensitive to air pollution.
Orange means unhealthy for sensitive groups: At 101-150, this means that members of susceptible groups may experience health effects. The public is less likely to be affected.
Red means unhealthy: At 151-200, some members of the public may experience health effects; members of susceptible groups may experience more serious health effects
Purple means very unhealthy: At 201-300, this reading is a health alert, meaning the risk of health effects is increased for everyone.
Maroon means dangerous: At 301 or above, this marks a health warning of emergency conditions: everyone is more likely to be affected.
In Oregon and Southwest Washington, we are no stranger to hazardous air quality due to wildfire smoke. Even when fires are miles away, that smoke can affect air quality. You may remember in September 2020, Portland had a brief the worst air quality in the world because of the smoke of the fire.
So what can we do to protect ourselves from dangerous air quality?
Limit your time outdoors and consider spending more time indoors. If you’re going to be outside, be sure to avoid strenuous activity. Wear an N95 or P100 mask to filter out particles, but remember nothing less, such as a cloth mask won’t do. Install a portable air purifier and set your air conditioner to recirculate.
“If you’re going to use any type of air conditioner or any type of portable air purifier, you’ll want to make sure the filters are clean and replaced regularly,” said Dr. Polo. “And you want to make sure it’s working properly, so it’s netting the air.”