Every year in late July or early August, fire season begins in many parts of the western United States. Due to climate changes, increased average temperatures and decreased rain and snowfall, the fire season is getting harsher and longer each year. With fire, there is smoke, and with smoke there are health issues that need to be addressed in people and pets.
Research has shown that in healthy individuals, short term smoke from wildfires may not cause health issues, but long term exposure is something else. This year, here in the pacific northwest, exposure to smoke from regional wildfires has lasted over a month and it is predicted that it might last until the first snowfall, which may be as long as another 3 months. That would mean that people and their pets have the potential for breathing in smoke for about 1/3 of the year.
It is easy to get frustrated when smoke is around for long periods. We naturally want to get outside and do our summer recreation. But, even healthy people and pets can get ill if they are not careful. I know people that admit that a little eye irritation and nose burning is not enough to keep them from getting outside and exercising. Unfortunately, it is much more than a little local irritation.
Just yesterday, I watched a young lady, obviously fit, jogging down the road with her senior Golden Retriever following her on its leash. She seemed to be doing fine, but her dog had its tongue extended while coughing its head off. The news reported that a local construction fellow with a history of asthma had died due to the smoke exposure. This is a problem that should not be taken lightly.
How does woodsmoke cause health problems? Woodsmoke is composed of carbon dioxide, water vapor, carbon monoxide, particulate matter, hydrocarbons and other organic chemicals. The particulate matter is of primary concern as it is the major factor causing illness. These harmful particles are extremely small (less than 10 micrometers, known as PM10) are capable of entering deep into the lungs, affecting both the lung and heart. Wildfire particles usually range from 0.4-0.7 micrometers, making them extremely dangerous and hard to prevent entering the body.
Obviously, the young, old and sick individual is most at risk, but prolonged exposure to the effects of wildfire smoke will also affect the healthy individual. As the small particles enter deep into the air passages, they act as irritants, causing persistent coughing, phlegm production and wheezing. The particles trigger inflammation in the air passages, reducing the air passages. The combination of mucous or phlegm production and inflammation in the bronchioles impedes the ability for the air to reach the lung alveoli where the oxygen exchange to the blood occurs. The reduction of air and oxygen has deleterious effects on the lungs and heart and in time to all the cells in the body.
Pets that have a history of asthma, chronic bronchitis, tracheal collapse, laryngeal paresis, heart disease and others are extremely high risk pets that cannot tolerate exposure to smoke. This can be potentially life threatening. Cats that are exposed to wildfire smoke, while cleaning themselves, will take the toxic chemicals from the smoke into their GI system, creating inflammation in that system. The particles from the smoke are known to affect the body’s mechanisms that normally remove inhaled foreign material from the lungs such as pollen and bacteria.
Carbon monoxide is another component of wood smoke and prolonged exposure to this dangerous chemical can cause reduced oxygen delivery to the tissue, cardiovascular disease, dizziness, weakness and eventually coma and death. Formaldehyde and acrolein are also components of wood smoke causing irritation and inflammation and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, also found in smoke, is considered a carcinogen and has been linked to cancer.
What is the best way to protect ourselves and our pets? If possible, stay inside. Do not be tempted to go ahead and get outside for exercise. Keep the doors and windows closed and use the air conditioner. Most central air conditioners blow re-cycled air in the house and allow very little to come from outside. If the smoke is around for weeks or months and there is a period of one or two days where the air is clear, open the windows and air out the house. Do not vacuum during these periods as the smoke particles settle and vacuuming will stir the particles up and re-introduce them into the air.
Do not exercise your pet outside. This will encourage breathing through the mouth and increase the exposure of the toxic particles deep into the pet’s lungs. Reduce indoor pollution by avoiding the use of aerosols, cigarettes, frying or broiling meat and burning candles or incense. If you must vacuum, use a HEPA filtered vacuum cleaner. Clean the air filters in your house regularly and set the air conditioner thermostat to “on” instead of “auto” which will maximize indoor particle removal. Using HEPA filter air cleaners and ESPs that do not produce excess ozone can help reduce indoor particles. Do NOT use ozone generators, personal air purifiers or “super-oxygen” air purifiers as they produce too much ozone which will exacerbate symptoms of smoke pollution. Air humidifiers are not air cleaners and will not reduce the smoke particles in the air.
For people who need to be outside, it is recommended to wear mask. The paper, surgeon’s mask does not work as the small particles move readily through the pores in the mask. You should use a designated respiratory device with a label NIOSH and designation of N95 or P100 to be protective.
Today, it is easy to monitor air quality and smoke levels in your area. The Air Quality Index is promulgated by the EPA and quantifies air quality. An AQI level above 100 is a designated level that states that the air quality is unhealthy. The AirNow, www.airnow.gov, is a site run by the EPA that reports AQI on an hourly basis. The wildfire map page on airnow.gov page allows the public to monitor wildfire conditions across the country.
If you are one of my many readers who live some where else around the world, here is a link to an international air quality monitoring page.
Wildfire smoke, over extended periods, can be extremely dangerous to people and their pets. We must be aware of the potential health problems that might occur and be proactive to protect our pets.