The smoke is coming. Between extreme heat and drought across the entire Western U.S. and an early wildfire season, climatologists are alarmed about what’s ahead.
But after a year of sealing ourselves off in our homes, hunkering down and having to calculate when to go outside during the pandemic, we’re better prepared than ever to face this coming smoke season.
The first step is to commit to a few preventive measures against breathing in the fine particulate matter from wildfire smoke. Known as PM2.5, the fine particulate matter can contribute to respiratory, cardiovascular and other health problems and even lead to premature death.
As levels of PM2.5 climb, as they did in September 2020, the health risks become greater, according to a recent study on the health effects of wildfires from the University of Washington’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences.
Researchers found that people’s lung capacity declined even after the smoke cleared.
Edmund Seto was among the authors of that recent study.
His team estimates that 92 deaths in Washington state during a two-week smoke event in 2020 can be attributed to PM2.5 exposure, with the greatest per-capita toll in Central and Eastern Washington. The study was recently published in the journal GeoHealth.
The smoke from wildfires is different from the stuff you intentionally inhale, and its particles are just as harmful for smokers as they are for people with healthy lungs — if not worse.
Indoor air cleaners should be considered for all groups, Seto advised, especially for those who are most vulnerable to wildfire smoke impacts.
One way to mitigate these impacts is to keep an air cleaner in a designated clean room where you can reduce your exposure to unhealthful air. Here’s everything you need to know about setting one up.
Buy or build an air cleaner
Whether you go with a top-of-the-line air purifier or a nearly-free DIY model, you’ll be glad to have it when smoke fills the sky. The Washington State Department of Health recommends portable HEPA air cleaners appropriate to the size of your clean room, and suggest devices that change the air out five to six times per hour.
An air purifier need not be expensive to be effective. You can make one yourself using a 20” x 20” box fan, a 20” x 20” x 1” MERV 13 or FPR 10 filter, a power drill, 3/4” screws and 2” corner brackets.
Choose a room
It should be big enough to fit everyone in your household and comfortable to spend time in. A bedroom with an attached bathroom is a good choice.
Close windows and doors in the room, but don’t do anything that makes it hard to get out. If there is an exhaust fan or range hood in the clean room space, only use it for short periods.
Run fans, window air conditioners or central air conditioning. If your HVAC system or window air conditioner has a fresh-air option, turn it off or close the intake. Filter the air in the room. If you have central air, you can also install a high-efficiency filter (MERV 13 or higher) in the system. Run the system’s fan as often as possible to get the most out of the filter. Or use a portable air cleaner that is the right size for the room. Run the portable air cleaner continuously on the highest fan setting if you can.
What to do when the smoke arrives
Should I wear a mask? It depends.
Respirator masks can be effective at reducing exposure to smoke particles, but they should only be used after first implementing other, more effective methods of exposure reduction, including staying indoors with doors and windows closed, reducing activity and using HEPA air cleaners indoors.
For adults, NIOSH N95 or P100 masks, when worn correctly, have been shown to filter particles and improve the quality of the air being inhaled.
Masks can be ordered online or purchased at hardware stores.
People with respiratory or heart conditions should consult with their health care professional before wearing a respirator mask.
Effective masks are labeled NIOSH N95 or P100 and must fit properly.
Surgical masks, dust masks, and bandannas or other face coverings do not offer protection from particle pollution.
Make the most of your clean room
Spend as much time as possible in your clean room to get the most benefit from it. To help reduce exposure to any particles that may enter the room, avoid exercising in the clean room.
When smoke is in the air, avoid activities in the clean room that create smoke or other particles indoors. These include smoking cigarettes, pipes, cigars or cannabis; using gas, propane or wood-burning stoves and furnaces; spraying aerosol products; burning candles or incense; and vacuuming (unless you use a vacuum with a HEPA filter).
Use damp cloths to wipe down the clean room, and track wildfires currently burning in your area at weather.gov/fire and inciweb.nwcg.gov.
What else can you do?
Keep tabs on air quality at airnow.gov or Washington smoke information at wasmoke.blogspot.com/. Don’t exercise outdoors when the air is smoky. Stay inside, and if you are in a sensitive group, consider going to a different geographic area if you can’t keep indoor air smoke-free.