As record wildfires rage across Canada, sending smoke across the Midwest and East Coast, you may experience respiratory symptoms, even though you consider yourself a healthy person without any lung or heart disease.
The Air Quality Index, or AQI, tells you how clean or polluted the air is in your city, and according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the more l AQI is high, the greater the health problems. Generally, once the AQI hits 100, the air pollution is “moderate” or “unhealthy for sensitive people.” Up to 200, it becomes “unhealthy” and “very unhealthy”.
Many people are quick to compare poor air quality to smoking, which is another known trigger of respiratory problems. And that’s a valid analogy, backed by science.
A 2020 study by the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment found that breathing in wildfire smoke that raises the AQI to 150 for several days is equivalent to smoking seven cigarettes a day. (By comparison, the AQI in New York on Wednesday because of Canada’s wildfires was over 300.)
It’s if you stay outside all the time that the AQI is 150, according to the study. But, the researchers noted, some of that pollution can seep inside. And short-term exposure to high levels of wildfire smoke was found to be similar to chronic exposure to low levels of air pollution.
Dr. Afif El-Hasan, volunteer medical spokesperson for the American Lung Association, told HuffPost that it’s appropriate to compare cigarette smoke and wildfire smoke. It goes back to the size of small polluting particles, which can contain dust, soot, dirt, smoke, liquids and chemicals, all of which find their way into our bloodstream. These particles can cause inflammation, also affecting our lungs and other parts of our body.
“You’re basically dealing with inhaling vegetation, like tobacco leaves in the cigarette, so it’s true,” El-Hasan said. “Because you’re burning an organic substance, the two give off a lot of different chemicals. Some of them immediately irritate the lungs and some are carcinogenic.
“You walk into a room where everyone is smoking, you’ll start coughing right away. It’s the same with this.
– Dr. Afif El-Hasan, volunteer medical spokesperson for the American Lung Association
Breathing smoke can affect you immediately, which is why you are experiencing symptoms including coughing, difficulty breathing, asthma attacks, itchy eyes, scratchy throat, runny nose, headache and chest pain.
“I believe that the comparison between the effects of wildfire smoke and cigarette smoke on the lungs is reasonable,” Brady Scotta comrade of American Association for Respiratory Care, told HuffPost. “While the specific types and amounts of toxins in wildfire smoke are still being studied, we know that inhaling smoke can harm our lungs and overall health. Although smoke from wildfires smoke and cigarette smoke are not the same, the comparison highlights that breathing smoke from wildfires can be harmful.
“You walk into a room where everyone is smoking, you’re going to start coughing right away,” El-Hasan added.. “It’s the same with this.”
The long-term effects of each are also similar, especially for sensitive groups. Since smoking damages blood vessels and makes them thicker and narrower, blood clots can form and increase the risk of stroke, because clots block blood flow to the brain. Similarly, smoke from forest fires increases the risk of stroke by 40% in people over 65 and the rate of heart attacks.
However, other factors could also apply, El-Hasan said. “You also have to think about how long the person is there, are they actively breathing, and what type of smoke are we dealing with.”
What makes smoke so dangerous?
Smoke from forest fires is a combination water vapour, pollutants including carbon monoxide and particulate pollution consisting of acids, chemicals, soot, metals, dust, pollen and mold. All the air we breathe contains polluting particles. But it’s the ability of these particles to enter our lungs, especially at high concentrations, that makes inhalation harmful.
“It’s important to note that even people without pre-existing lung conditions can experience the adverse effects of poor air quality,” Scott said. “When exposed to polluted air, a person’s airways can become irritated, leading to coughing, shortness of breath and wheezing. For people who already have asthma or other lung conditions, this can make symptoms even worse.
Wildfires are typically made up of fine particles, which make up 90% of the pollutants in wildfire smoke. These pollution particles are small, allowing them to pass easily through the nose and throat into the lungs and then into the bloodstream.
“Forest fires are unique in several ways,” El-Hasan said. “First of all, what burns in this forest is different in each area. Some of them are artificial. You are dealing with ash from trees and vegetation, but you could also be dealing with chemicals like plastics.
In general, inhale plastic fumes wildfires can increase the risk of heart disease and increase respiratory side effects such as asthma, skin irritation, headaches, and nervous and organ system damage.
Similarly, cigarette smoke, particularly tobacco smoke particles and second-hand smoke particles, are small enough to pass through the lungs and be rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream.
How are your lungs affected by smoke?
Fine particles that enter your lungs can cause persistent coughing, phlegm, wheezing and difficulty breathing. Additionally, particle pollution from wildfires can make it harder for your body to eliminate foreign material such as viruses and bacteria.
Short term exposure will always contribute to respiratory symptoms and effects, including bronchitis, reduced lung function, increased risk of asthma, and increased risk of emergency room visits and hospitalizations.
“The lungs will heal themselves by getting rid of the particles one way or another. Ultimately, the ash you inhale gets filtered through the upper airways, or lungs,” El-Hasan said. Chemicals that enter the body through the lungs into the bloodstream will hopefully be neutralized at some point by the liver.”
However, being able to filter and resolve your reaction to smoking can be more difficult if you are part of a sensitive group. This includes people with asthma and other respiratory conditions, people with cardiovascular disease, children under 18, pregnant women, the elderly, people living in low-income and marginalized communities and outdoor workers.
Likewise, both cigarette and wildfire smoke can linger in the lungs and air for an extended period of time. Smoke from wildfires can linger for days, El-Hasan said. “Even when the forest fires are extinguished, particles are still sent to us. There is still ash, gas, excreted from those burning parts.
Even if the air is clearing, it is important to check the air quality in your city and take the appropriate measures to protect yourself.
What can you do to protect yourself from smoke?
Limiting your exposure is the best thing you can do. However, it can be difficult for people who work outdoors or experience unequal exposure.
Prevention options for those most likely to be exposed to smoke ― such as people living in older homes with less effective indoor air filters ― include wearing N95 masks and using air filters HEPA electrics in one room at a time.
“Try to stay indoors, make sure you have an air filter if you can, but also, if you’re someone with chronic lung disease or heart disease, make sure you sure that you are taking your meds and that you have your meds available in case something goes wrong,” El-Hasan said. “This is not the time when you want to say ‘my inhaler isn’t working.'”