The Dangers of Wildfire Smoke and its Far-Reaching Impact on Air Quality
Wildfires have always been a natural part of the ecosystem. But in recent years, the intensity and frequency of wildfires in the United States and Canada have surged to unprecedented levels.
Apart from the immediate threats wildfires pose to life, property, and the environment, these devastating blazes also release thick smoke that can have far-reaching consequences on air quality.
In fact, wildfire smoke can impact areas far away from the actual site of the fire. In June 2023, we’re seeing this across North America with wildfires in eastern Canada prompting air quality warnings as far south as the Carolinas and as far west as Kansas according to air quality tool MapMyAir.
The New England and Mid-Atlantic region are experiencing some of the worst air quality from these wildfires, with thick blankets of smoke settling over the regions. At first glance, it looks like overcast weather, but that’s actually smoke creating a haze and choking the skies.
Why is wildfire smoke so hazardous?
Wildfire smoke consists of a complex mixture of particles and gasses that are released as buildings, vegetation, and other matter burn. It contains a range of hazardous substances, including carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and fine particulate matter (PM2.5).
PM2.5 is especially hazardous to our health. These are the fine particles that can get into our bloodstream and respiratory systems and trigger health issues. For individuals with health conditions related to the heart and lungs, elevated PM2.5 (and poor air quality in general) should be avoided as much as possible.
How can wildfire smoke be so far-reaching?
Wildfire smoke can travel incredible distances due to weather patterns and atmospheric conditions. Even if a fire occurs hundreds of miles away, like we’re seeing with the Quebec fires, its smoke can be carried by prevailing winds and impact air quality in regions much further away.
This means that areas not directly affected by the flames can still experience significant impacts due to air quality. It’s important to pay attention to air quality warnings in your area and take them seriously due to the related health risks.
What health risks are associated with poor air quality from wildfire smoke?
Exposure to wildfire smoke can have severe health consequences. Even at lower concentrations, wildfire smoke can impact health. This is because fine particulate matter (PM2.5), a major component of wildfire smoke, is microscopic in size and can enter the bloodstream.
These tiny particles can penetrate deep into the respiratory system as well. Prolonged exposure to PM2.5 can lead to respiratory issues, aggravated asthma and allergies, increased risk of heart attacks, and even premature death. Children, pregnant women, the elderly, and individuals with pre-existing lung or heart conditions are especially vulnerable to the dangers of PM2.5 and poor air quality. These groups should pay close attention to air quality warnings for their area and plan accordingly.
What should I do if there’s an air quality warning for my area?
The Air Quality Index (AQI) is a standardized measurement for air quality that provides real-time information about what’s impacting your air. AQI readings can spike into hazardous or unhealthy ranges when an area is affected by wildfire smoke. This shift to poor air quality due to wildfire smoke prompts authorities to issue air quality alerts.
These are often part of the general weather report but for specific information about your region you can use a tool like Oransi’s Live Air Quality search tool to see data about air quality (this data includes wildfire smoke and PM2.5 as well as pollen and seasonal allergens like grass). A screenshot from Oransi's air quality search tool taken on June 8, 2023 is pictured below. You can tell the air quality is worse in Eastern United States due to the Canadian wildfires.
When there’s an air quality warning for your area, stay indoors as much as possible, close windows, and use air purifiers with activated carbon to clean the indoor air of wildfire smoke and other air pollution that inevitably gets inside buildings. HEPA filter based media air purifiers with carbon are engineered to handle fine particulate matter like PM2.5.
How can I know if an air purifier will really help with wildfire smoke?
With so many brands to choose from, it can feel overwhelming looking for the right air purifier. No one wants to end up with buyer's remorse having purchased something that doesn’t actually get the job done.
With air quality alerts from the June 2023 Quebec wildfires impacting so much of the Eastern US, it’s clear many households are in need of something that can truly help.
Fortunately, there’s only one number you need to judge air purifier performance. That number is CADR.
CADR stands for Clean Air Delivery Rate and it measures the volume of clean air an air purifier produces in cubic feet per minute, which proves the performance or lack thereof. It’s a standard measurement that’s tested by third party independent labs. There’s a CADR number specific to smoke particles and how well an air purifier cleans rooms of smoke.
A good rule of thumb is to look for an air purifier with a Smoke CADR that’s about ⅔ the size of the room you want to clean. That one number is all you need to shop with confidence.
If you don’t see Smoke CADR listed in the technical specs, it’s a good bet that number wasn’t impressive enough to share.
For a straightforward comparison list of the most popular air purifiers, their Smoke CADR, and lifetime cost (because some brands have expensive, frequent replacement filters), visit our new comparison resource tool.
Still need guidance on air quality and how to make it safer during wildfire season?
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