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How Wildfires Affect Indoor Air Quality

wildfires impacting residential air quality

While much of the world’s focus in 2020 has been on mitigating the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. has also experienced a devastating wildfire season. The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) reports that, as of October 23, a total of 46,681 fires have burned 8,608,646 acres in 2020. That’s roughly 2.3 million acres above the 10-year-average (2010-2019) for the same time period. In the Rocky Mountain region and West Coast of the U.S., residents have experienced hazy skies as wildfire smoke fills the outdoor air. We know that this smoky outdoor air is dangerous to breathe, but do you know how wildfires affect indoor air quality? Read on to learn more about their effects and what you can do to manage them.

Effects of Wildfire Smoke on Health

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), smoke consists of a complex mixture of gases and fine particles created when organic materials (i.e. wood) are burned, with the fine particles posing the biggest health threat. These particles are microscopic in size and can get into your eyes and respiratory system and cause various health problems including:

  • Burning eyes
  • Runny nose
  • Coughing and phlegm
  • Wheezing and difficulty breathing
  • Respiratory illness such as bronchitis
  • Aggravation of chronic heart and lung diseases

The EPA also states that, in the most severe cases, fine particles are linked to premature death in people with chronic lung and heart conditions. And while not at a major risk from short-term smoke exposure, healthy individuals should still avoid breathing smoke whenever possible. Additional details on the health effects of smoke inhalation can be found on the EPA’s AirNow website.

How Wildfire Smoke Reaches & Affects Indoor Air Quality

Preventing wildfire smoke’s adverse health effects isn’t as simple as locking yourself up in the home. Outdoor air enters the home in a few different ways:

  • Natural ventilation – natural and intentional methods of indoor/outdoor air exchange, such as open windows and doors
  • Mechanical ventilation – intentional air exchange via mechanical devices such as HVAC systems with a fresh air intake and devices that vent indoor air outdoors (i.e., bathroom and kitchen exhaust fans)
  • Infiltration – unintentional air exchanges such as small openings, cracks, joints, and seams around closed windows and doors

As the impact of wildfire smoke on indoor air quality will vary based on proximity to the fire and the smoke’s density, it’s crucial that you follow local news and emergency alerts. That being said, there are still steps you can take to prepare and protect your family, self, and home.

What You Can Do

If you live in an area with a high risk of wildfires, or in a nearby region likely to experience high smoke levels, you must be proactive in maintaining your home’s air quality and recognizing the warning signs of smoke pollution.

Know Who Is at Higher Risk

While breathing wildfire smoke is dangerous for anyone to breathe, certain people are more susceptible to its negative effects:

  • Individuals with heart or lung disease, like heart failure, angina, ischemic heart disease, and obstructive pulmonary disease
  • Individuals with lung disease, like emphysema and asthma
  • Older adults
  • Individuals caring for children, including teenagers
  • Individuals with diabetes
  • Pregnant women

Understand the Signs/Symptoms

As mentioned above, the fine particles of smoke can enter and affect your eyes and respiratory system, which is especially dangerous for individuals with chronic heart or lung diseases. Be aware of the potential symptoms of smoke pollution:

  • Effects anyone may experience: burning eyes, runny nose, phlegm, coughing, wheezing, difficulty breathing
  • Additional effects on people with heart disease: chest pain, palpitations, shortness of breath, fatigue
  • Additional effects on people with lung disease: inability to breath as deeply or vigorously as normal, chest discomfort, shortness of breath

Protect Your Home from Smoke Exposure

It’s a simple formula: Preventing exposure to wildfire smoke helps prevent its negative effects. Use these steps to keep smoke from decreasing indoor air quality during wildfires:

  • Consult your HVAC specialist on how to adjust your system to keep smoke and outdoor air from entering the home.
  • Use caulk to seal any cracks, seams, and other small openings that could allow outdoor air into the home.
  • Keep doors and windows closed and lock them for a tighter seal.
  • Ensure HVAC air filters are in good condition and cleaned/replaced according to manufacturer guidelines. If the system can support it, consider upgrading to a MERV 13 rated filter or higher.
  • Avoid activities that produce fine particles, such as smoking cigarettes, frying or broiling food, and burning candles.
  • Purchase N95 respirators and know how to use them.
  • Consider purchasing a portable high-efficiency air cleaner, such as AQE’s MiracleAir PM-400 Portable HEPA Air Cleaner.

Between the COVID-19 pandemic and wildfires in the Western U.S., the last year has highlighted the importance of air quality like never before. As your clean air solution experts, AQE wants to help you understand how wildfires affect indoor air quality, as well as assist in following the EPA’s preparation and protection recommendations.

We provide innovative and effective air cleaner systems for a variety of applications, including residential and office, school, and business settings. For all your air quality needs, trust the customer-focused specialists at AQE.

Contact us to learn more.

Air Quality Engineering

Air Quality Engineering