Wildfire Smoke Can Be Terrible For Your Health. Here's How to Stay Safe

Wildfire Smoke Can Be Terrible For Your Health. Here's How to Stay Safe
From TIME - October 10, 2017

More than a dozen wildfires in California wine country have destroyed at least 1,500 homes and killed at least 13 people in the last few days, and the numbers are expected to rise as more information is reported. The city of Santa Rosa and surrounding Sonoma County are among the hardest hit areas, with smoke reported as far as 60 miles away in San Francisco.

These wildfires bring health risks with them. Wildfires send smoke, soot, toxic gases and tiny particles into the air, which can be carried for tens or even hundreds of miles, and have been linked to respiratory and heart problems. Air pollution (although not firespecific pollution) has also been associated with an increased risk of diabetes, kidney disease and spikes in blood pressure.

On top of that, forests and crops are often treated with flame-retardant chemicals and pesticides. A recent review in the journal Current Topics in Toxicology recommended more research on the health effects of these chemicals as potential components of wildfire smoke, especially since their useand the frequency of wildfireshave both increased in California in recent years.

If you worry that your health and safety may be affected by a nearby wildfire (or even one that's farther away), here are some steps you can take to protect your health.

Limit time spent outdoors

Some of the most obvious health effects of wildfire smoke are itchy eyes, a burning or runny nose and coughing or wheezingand the more time you spend outside when its smoky, the worse these symptoms are likely to get.

If you know you might be exposed to air pollution from the wildfires, try to limit your outdoor activity, says Jia Coco Liu, a post-doctoral research associate at Johns Hopkins University who studies the effects of air pollution on health. It might not be a good idea to go for an hour run outside if you know there are fires nearby.

You dont have to be in close proximity to a burning area to suffer from fire-related poor air quality, though. How far smoke and particle spread varies based on the type of fire, the wind and other factors, Liu says. Rather than assuming youre in the clear, sign up for air-quality alerts from, which will let you know when pollution levels in your zip code are unhealthy.

Watch out for invisible pollution

Wildfires can dramatically increase the levels of fine-particulate matter, which are little aerosols that are so tiny they can travel through your lung tissues and other tissues in your body, says Liu. Lots of research has found that those particles can affect health, especially in vulnerable populations like children and the elderly.

These particles have been associated with health risks including heart attacks, irregular heartbeat, coughing, difficulty breathing and increased hospital visits due to worsening asthma. Theyre too small to see or smellbut if you sign up for daily air-quality alerts, youll get info about these pollutants as well.

Run your air conditioner

Dont rely on paper masks

Have an escape plan, just in case

Be careful with cleanup


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