How to protect yourself from future wildfire smoke

by | Jul 3, 2023 | Health & Wellness, Weather

Fredericksburg’s air quality index rose to dangerous levels for the second time in less than a month on Wednesday as Canadian wildfire smoke drifted southward again. By Thursday, the local air quality had deteriorated to a level that is considered unhealthy, and the concentration remained unhealthy for sensitive groups until the weekend. Both the UN and President Biden warned that these wildfires and the associated air pollution will become a more frequent daily reality soon as a result of climate change. 

When the Air Quality Index (AQI) is above 150, everybody can experience a range of symptoms including coughing, sore throat, difficulty breathing, and watery or burning eyes. This smoke is particularly dangerous for children, pregnant people, and those with conditions such as asthma, COPD, emphysema, and heart disease. 

Local air quality has improved since Thursday and over the weekend dropped below the score that is considered unhealthy for sensitive groups. But with the wildfires in Canada still burning and American summers getting hotter, it’s not likely to be the last time Fredericksburg is under an air quality warning. 

Carrie Ludwig, Mary Washington Hospital’s Director of Respiratory Services, offered advice for how to cope with future air quality problems. She advised those with medical conditions that can be exacerbated by the air pollution to monitor their symptoms closely when air quality is poor. 

“Pay close attention,” she said.  “if you are experiencing shortness of breath, if you’re having chest tightness, if you’re having increased heart rate, if you’re extremely tired more than usual, if your symptoms are severe, you want to call your doctor or call 911.”

There are also practical steps that everybody should take to protect themselves during periods of poor air quality. The most important thing is to limit outdoor exercise. 

 “Most important precautions to take for anyone, not just those sensitive with pulmonary conditions, is to limit outdoor activity, especially exercise,” Ludwig said. “So if you normally take your afternoon walk outside, maybe go somewhere that has a treadmill or go to the mall and walk around the mall. Really, really limit those outdoor activities.”

Once indoors, you should close off rooms to prevent any outside air from entering and avoid activities such as using aerosols and gas fireplaces which could add fine particles to your indoor air. Seal the gap between any window air conditioners and your window as tight as possible. 

Ludwig also recommends wearing masks or face coverings outdoors. “An N-95 is the best, such as we did through COVID. If you don’t have access to an N95, you can use really anything in this area, like a surgical mask or even a scarf, bandana, something like that. At least something to hopefully prevent some of those particles from entering the lungs.”

There are some proactive steps that you can take to be prepared for the next time the local AQI score rises to dangerous levels. Especially if you or someone in your home is a member of a sensitive group, ensure that you have a few N95s and spare filters on hand. Ludwig also recommends familiarizing yourself with the air quality index and monitoring it daily. 

“There are recommendations to have filtration systems in the home that will filter out particles naturally,” she said. “But really just make sure you’re aware, you know what the quality index is for the day, and then take those precautions.”

While Fredericksburg’s air quality has been dangerous recently, Ludwig says that Mary Washington Hospital has not seen any major influx of patients with symptoms related to the smoke. 

“It’s hard to determine that it would be air quality related, but I wouldn’t say we’ve really seen too much of an uptick,” she said.  “We don’t want [patients] to come to the hospital, we want them to stay home and healthy. But we also want them to understand that if they do get to the point that they need to come in, we’re prepared.”

And for those who are not likely to experience significant health problems as a result of smoke, the best practice is to check in on your neighbors. 

“If you know of individuals that are sensitive or have lung concerns, check in on them. Check in on them often,” Ludwig said.  

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