Air quality has reached unhealthy and even hazardous levels in many parts of the Bay Area as smoke from surrounding wildfires continues to blanket the region.
Masks? Fans? Dealing with smoky air in your home and car
Masks? Fans? Dealing with smoky air in your home and car
But even when air quality conditions are moderate, wildfire smoke has become an unpleasant part of life for Bay Area residents, ranging from a nuisance for some to a health risk for others.
So how do you lessen the impact in your home, your car and your daily life? Experts say there are a few things you can do.
Seal your home
The first and most important step is to close all windows and doors and keep them closed. Even if the air quality is at moderate levels, it’s important to keep your house sealed and stay inside as much as possible because “weather conditions can shift very quickly,” said Kristine Roselius, acting communications officer for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.
If you live in a city that’s generally cool, like San Francisco, it may be easy to limit outside activity and seal the house shut. The air district recommends preparing homes for wildfires by refurbishing old leaky windows or doors, or using caulking to seal openings.
Assess the heat
For residents who live without air conditioning in hotter areas such as Livermore, where temperatures regularly surpass 95 degrees, heat and wildfire smoke can compound existing health issues. But effects like heat exhaustion or collapse can come quicker than effects from the smoke.
“Heat really takes precedence over the smoke,” Roselius said. “So if smoke is problematic in the house but heat is also an issue, we recommend finding a [cooler] place with cleaner air.”
A good place to start is to check the availability of cooling centers in your city and county, and what protocols they have in place to protect against the spread of the coronavirus.
Consider an air purifier
If you can stay at reasonably comfortable temperatures in your home, the air district recommends purchasing a non-ozone producing air purifier (HEPA) to create a cleaner-air room. A number of online retailers like Best Buy, Amazon, Walmart and Dyson, sell HEPA air purifiers — with cost ranging greatly, from around $100 to $900.
Another option would be to purchase a MERV 13 or greater filter for your HVAC system — to be used when the smoke is really heavy outside. These filters can be bought online and range in price depending on size.
Turn on the recirculation
If you have an air conditioning system already, make sure it has the ability to recirculate — which would prevent outside smoke from entering into the home. The same goes for your car, Roselius said.
It’s also important to make sure that the filters are clean and have been changed regularly, said Jeff Williams, air pollution expert in the research division of the California Air Resources Board.
Avoid these (including air fresheners)
Activities that might create indoor pollution should be avoided. That means not smoking cigarettes or cigars inside, and avoiding candles and incense as much as possible. “A single candle really generates a very large number of particles in the home,” Williams said.
Aerosol products, like air fresheners and cleaning products (as much as is possible during a pandemic), should be avoided. The same goes for cooking that includes frying or boiling without leaving the range hood on, and vacuuming if the filter is full of dust.
People should try to avoid adding more outdoor air pollution as well — which means cutting back on barbecuing, driving, lawn mowing and other activities that produce dust, heat and emissions.
Roselius also did not recommend humidifiers, which add moisture to the air but can lead to respiratory problems if they’re not changed often enough or used correctly. However, Williams said that if air conditioning is left on for a while, the air can get very dry in the house. “I wouldn’t see any problem with using a humidifier” in those circumstances, he said.
The mask factor
Should you wear a mask inside your home to mitigate the effects of smoke?
Probably not, experts say
Surgical masks and bandannas do nothing for smoke protection, experts say. N95 and N99 masks offer protection from wildfire smoke, but they present a few problems.
First, they’re hard to get because they’re in high demand from health care workers, who especially need them during the coronavirus pandemic.
But the bigger problem is that they’re often not worn properly, Roselius said. Wearing these kinds of masks wrong can lead to a false sense of security and overexertion — so they’re not recommended for use inside, she said.
Also, even if they’re worn correctly, with both straps on and with the proper seal, they can be very uncomfortable and cause breathing problems. For those with heart conditions or lung problems, extended use of the masks can lead to labored breathing and increased respiratory and heart rates.
Children and those with facial hair should also not use them, Roselius said.
What about fans?
Fans just recirculate air within the home, but they can help you keep cool if your home doesn’t have air conditioning. Just make sure to clean out any dust from fans so the particles don’t clog the air.
What should I do if I’m in my car?
If you’re in your car, the advice is mostly the same — keep the windows closed, and if you have air conditioning, make sure the recirculate setting is on. Also be cognizant of the ash that might have built up on the car’s exterior, especially on windows and the windshield, which could impair your ability to drive.
How do I know if I’m getting sick?
The health impacts from wildfire smoke can be serious. If you or a loved one is already at higher risk — whether because of asthma, a heart condition or other lung issues — make sure to outfit the house as quickly as possible with the resources you might need. People with asthma should follow their existing management plans, or consult with their physicians, and those who are high-risk should limit outdoor exposure as much as possible.
If you have shortness of breath, or if any other symptoms arise after you breathe smoke, contact your physician for recommendations and care.