Smoky air is damaging to our health. What can we do about it?

By Tiffany Camhi (OPB) and Julie Sabatier (OPB)
Sept. 15, 2020 5:35 p.m. Updated: Sept. 15, 2020 9:59 p.m.

Dense smoke from massive wildfires burning in Oregon, Washington and California have been pretty much smothering the entire West Coast for about a week now. The smoke has caused huge swaths of the region to have the poorest air quality in the world, so much so that it’s considered hazardous. OPB’s Tiffany Camhi spoke with Oregon Health and Science University pulmonologist Dr. Gopal Allada about what makes the air so dangerous and what we can do to stay safe.


What are the health risks associated with breathing the kind of air that’s blanketing much of the West right now?

Respiratory symptoms such as cough, wheezing, more phlegm production, throat irritation. When materials are burned, they release a combination of gasses and small particulate matter, both inorganic and organic forms of these compounds. It’s the really tiny small particulate matter that we’re most sensitive to, because these micron-sized particles can actually get deep into our lungs and trigger a lot of inflammation.

And are there groups of people that are more at risk?

People with chronic heart and lung conditions.

How can we make the air inside as safe as possible?

This is the time to probably make sure that our windows and doors are absolutely closed, so we’re not bringing in bad air. I’ve taken upon myself to check my air filters and make sure they’re up to date with my central cooling system. Air filters are rated based on their MERV rating. The higher the rating you go, the better it is at filtering out the smaller particulate matter.

For the times that we do have to step outside, what should we do to help protect ourselves when we’re out there?

Limit your time outside as much as possible. If people do have access to the N95 masks, those actually can protect the small particulate matter. A really important point is that alternative masks such as bandannas and even surgical masks don’t protect us from the small particulate matter that’s in wildfire smoke.

When this all clears, if we can no longer see if we can no longer smell the smoke, are we in the clear, or is some of that particulate matter still out there?

It can be bad, even though you’re not smelling it. So I think that the right thing to do is to go to those websites and listen to our government agencies that are actually monitoring the air quality and giving us those color coded guidelines as to how safe or dangerous it is. It isn’t a matter of seeing it or smelling it as much as just knowing exactly what’s in the air.