Wildfire smoke can carry long distances and persist for days. Breathing wildfire smoke is bad for your health, causing breathing problems and aggravating long-term conditions like high blood pressure. Children, people with chronic lung and heart conditions, and the elderly are at increased risk for health effects. While you can help protect yourself by staying indoors, when smoke lingers in an area, smoke particles can move into indoors air. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to keep your indoor air clean.
- If you have an HVAC system, run the air conditioner or fan to recirculate air through the filter. Use a high efficiency filter (rated MERV-13 or higher) and replace the filters as directed. Learn about your HVAC system and use the settings that will keep the fan running (“On” rather than “Auto”) and recirculate air without bringing in more outdoor air. If your system has a fresh air option, close the intake. If you have a window air conditioner, close the outdoor air damper, and make sure the seal between the air conditioner and window is tight.
- If you do not have an air conditioner, keep windows closed, and on hot days consider going to a public air-conditioned space or cooling center. Locate a cooling center near you by calling 2-1-1.
- Use a portable air cleaner. The best type uses a HEPA filter. Do not use a system with an ozonizer or ionizer unless you can turn it off. These settings can generate chemicals that irritate your lungs. If you can’t get a portable air cleaner, consider a DIY air cleaner.
- Create a clean air room. Sometimes it’s easier to try to keep the air in one room of a house clean rather than trying to keep the entire house’s air clean. If any members of your household are especially sensitive to smoke, they may benefit from a clean air room.
- Avoid household activities that pollute the air. Many normal household tasks, like cooking and cleaning, can temporarily generate airborne particles that can worsen indoor air quality. Do not fry food or use wood-burning stoves, gas stoves or furnaces, or propane. Do not clean with chemical cleaners. Avoid sweeping and vacuuming.
In much of Virginia outdoor air quality is low due to smoke particles from wildfires in Canada being brought in by the wind, reaching as far south as North Carolina. A large landfill fire in Fairfax County on June 6 also contributed to air quality declines in that area, with smoke widespread over I-95. The primary components of the smoke haze are tiny particles called PM2.5, which are less than 2.5 micrometers across. These are small enough to be breathed deep into the lungs, and even be absorbed into the blood. These can cause breathing problems for people with asthma or other lung diseases, and can raise blood pressure. In some cases breathing air with high levels of PM 2.5 can cause irregular heartbeat or even heart attacks. You can check your local air quality and get information about air quality and health at AirNow. See the AirNow Guide for Particle Pollution for steps to take when air quality is low.
Children, older adults, and people with chronic diseases like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, and heart disease are more sensitive and should be especially careful. When air quality is low, try to spend less time outdoors, don’t exercise strenuously, and take breaks during outdoor activity. If you notice eye or lung irritation, go indoors. You can help protect yourself by wearing an N95 respirator while you are outside.
While indoors, keep doors and windows closed to keep outside air from coming in. You can run your HVAC fan to recirculate air through the HVAC filter and help to remove particles. If you have a room HEPA filter, these are very effective at cleaning room air. Filters with ozonizers or ionizers are not necessary, since these can generate chemicals that can irritate your lungs and eyes.
Visit our Smoke Exposure factsheet for more information on how to protect yourself from smoke in outdoors air.
Wildfires have been very prevalent in the news recently with the historic wildfires in California this summer. While Virginia has a much lower risk of wildfires than states on the west coast, the Virginia Department of Forestry manages over 700 wildfires a year, mostly occurring in spring and fall. As the weather cools and the leaves start to fall, the risk of wildfire will increase. Most wildfires in Virginia are started by intentional fires that get out of control, so be cautious when burning leaves and brush or setting a campfire, and follow local burn regulations.
If you live in a wooded area, you should make a plan in case a wildfire happens nearby. You can take steps now to reduce the risk of your home being damaged, and planning ahead will help you be ready to leave quickly if your home is threatened. Plan with your family members how to keep together or contact each other if you have to evacuate and are separated. If a wildfire is burning near your home, follow the directions of local authorities if an evacuation is ordered.
While people’s homes are only rarely at risk to wildfire in Virginia, a wildfire can affect many more people due to air pollution from smoke. Smoke exposure puts people at risk for respiratory problems and has even been associated with a higher risk of heart attack. The CDC has information on how to protect yourself from wildfire smoke. The EPA has a short video showing how to make a clean room indoors by recirculating and filtering indoor air to remove smoke particles, providing clean air for the household.