HEALTH INFORMATION



COVID-19 and Wildfire Smoke

The COVID-19 pandemic is not over, and significant concerns remain about the potential for wildfire smoke to exacerbate the disease. Even though many Washingtonians are now vaccinated against COVID-19, there are more than a million residents of our state who are still at risk. For these people, exposure to wildfire smoke may make them more susceptible to respiratory infections, including COVID-19, and worsen COVID-19 symptoms such as coughing, sore throat, and difficulty breathing. If you are eligible for the vaccine, you should get the shot as soon as possible so that you will be protected when wildfire smoke arrives.

The availability of N95 and other NIOSH approved respirators has improved but the market can be unpredictable and could be in short supply. You may now be able to find smaller quantities in local hardware stores for purchase but be mindful of purchasing respirators in bulk and save them for those required to wear them for work. See below for additional information about proper mask use.

For additional information visit the WA DOH Smoke From Fires Webpage


Health Recommendations



Exposure to wildfire smoke can cause health problems, that range from minor to severe. Some symptoms include:

  • burning eyes, runny nose, sore throat
  • headache, coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath
  • worsening of lung, heart, and circulatory conditions
  • mental health concerns and psychological stress

The possibility for high levels of smoke to worsen or cause symptoms for people with heart or lung disease, and other pre-existing conditions, is a special concern because this can be life-threatening. Sensitive groups include:
  • people with heart and diseases
  • people with respiratory infections
  • infants and children
  • pregnant people
  • people over 65
  • stroke and heart attack survivors
  • people with diabetes
  • people with less access to healthcare, such as those with low socioeconomic status
  • people who smoke


How to protect you and your family's health from outdoor smoke

  • Stay updated on current and forecasted air quality. 
  • Avoid outdoor physical activity.
  • Stay indoors and take steps to keep your indoor air as clean as possible.
    • Keep windows and doors closed.
    • Improve the filtration indoors. Three options are described below.
    • Set air conditioners to re-circulate.
    • Don’t add to indoor pollution. 
      • When wildfire smoke is affecting air quality, avoid burning candles or incense, smoking, broiling or frying foods, and vacuuming (unless your vacuum has a HEPA filter).
  • Consider leaving the area if the air quality remains poor and it is not possible to keep the air in your home clean.
  • It’s often hot when it’s smoky outside. Pay attention to heat and signs of overheating. 
    • Track air quality and open windows when the air is cleaner.
    • Use portable fans and close curtains or window shades during the day. 
    • If you can’t keep cool and do have a way to filter the air in your home (see below), open windows when it’s coolest and run a portable HEPA filter or box fan filter to help clean the air.
    • If it’s still too hot, and you don’t have options to filter air, open windows to avoid heat exhaustion and other heat illnesses.

Recommendations for improving filtration of indoor air

  • For your home, consider one of three options:
    • If you have an HVAC system, set it to recirculate and close the fresh air intake while there is bad air quality. Increase the filtration to a MERV 13 rated filter, or the highest rated filter your system will handle. Also, select a filter with the deepest folds in the filter material your system can accommodate. Consult your HVAC manual or speak with an HVAC professional before making improvements and change the filter when dirty or when indicated in your HVAC manual.
    • Use a portable air cleaner with a HEPA filter. Make sure to select one that is rated for the size of the room where you plan to use it and choose a model that has a true HEPA filter and that is CARB certified, to ensure that it produce little or no ozone. Consider the noise rating, as some can be quite loud. Choosing a portable air cleaner with a clean air delivery rate (CADR) rated for a larger size room and running it at a lower setting will reduce the noise.
    • Make your own box fan filter using a standard box fan and a filter of the same dimensions with a MERV 13 rating. For safety and potential fire risk, do not run while unattended, monitor for overheating, and keep away from a window or wall so that the front and back are not blocked




  

Recommendations on the use of a face mask for wildfire smoke

  • Face masks are not the best option to reduce exposure and do not work for everyone—it is better to stay indoors and filter indoor air to keep it clean. If you have to be outside and cannot leave the smoky area or find other ways to reduce your exposure, NIOSH-approved respirators rated to filter out fine particles, such as an N95 respirator, can provide some protection if worn properly with a good seal.
  • For more information: 
  • COVID-19 Update: NIOSH-approved respirators may not be as available for purchase with the ongoing pandemic. 
    • N95 respirators with exhalation valves can provide protection from wildfire smoke, but they might not prevent the spread of COVID-19.
    • KN95 masks or masks from other counties respirators may not provide the same protection as NIOSH approved respirators because they are not regulated in the United States. If using a KN95 mask, look for ones that meet requirements similar to NIOSH approved respirators. 
    • Cloth face coverings, surgical masks, and filter inserts generally do not provide much protection from breathing in wildfire smoke much protection from the fine particles in smoke.


Air Quality Hazard Guidance: WAQA and AQI

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency uses an air quality reporting system called the Air Quality Index (AQI). The AQI map is shown at the top of this page. Washington state uses the Washington Air Quality Advisory (WAQA) reporting system.

Both AQI and WAQA use color-coded categories to show when air quality is good, moderate, or unhealthy. The difference is that WAQA shows health warnings at lower fine particle pollution (PM2.5) levels than the AQI does, meaning the WAQA map will often show a higher category of warning level. Studies show that levels of particles in the air that we previously thought were safe can cause illness and death. This FAQ includes more details about the WAQA.

You can view the WAQA map and refer to the image below to check air quality conditions to protect your health earlier than what the AQI indicates.



Resources for Schools and Protecting Students

Improving Indoor Air Quality for schools and buildings with mechanical ventilation:

Recommendations for recess, P.E., and athletic events and practices at schools during smoky conditions.


For more information visit the WA Dept. of Health Smoke From Fires Toolkits (information in many languages)


Additional Health Resources

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

U.S. Centers for Disease Control

For workers: Washington Labor and Industries

For children: Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Units