Smoke from wildfires from Canada has clouded much of the Northeast, leaving millions of Americans exposed to unhealthy levels of particulate matter.
Here’s what you need to know about the dangers of wildfire smoke and why it’s so toxic to your health.
What is considered a dangerous level of air quality?
Air quality is measured by the Environmental Protection Agencies Air Quality Index (AQI), which ranges from 0 to 500. A higher level indicates a higher level of pollution and health concern.
Levels below 100 are generally considered safe. Unhealthy levels range from 101 to 300, where more sensitive groups can experience symptoms at lower levels. The EPA provides an interactive map to monitor the air quality in your specific area.
In New York City, levels topped 400 in some areas this week. A value above 300 is considered dangerous, where everyone is likely to be affected by poor respiratory conditions.
Some hospitals have already seen patients suffering from bad air.
“We’ve seen a small increase in the number of patients presenting specifically with what we suspect is related to the environment, which includes things like coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and even headaches,” Dr. Frederick Davis, vice president of emergency medicine at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens, New York, told ABC News.
What are the dangers of inhaling fire smoke?
Particulate matter (PM) are tiny pieces of solid or liquid in the air including dust, dirt, soot and smoke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Inhaled particles are typically classified into two groups: PM10 and PM2.5 the number representing the size across the particle in micrometres.
These particles are invisible to the human eye. The diameter of a human hair is nearly 30 times larger than one of these smallest particles.
While larger particles can irritate the eyes, nose and throat, smaller particles pose an even greater threat. They can get deep into your lungs or even your blood and cause long-term damage.
“The smaller particles are the dangerous ones. They can cause asthma. They can make you have immune responses that aren’t as good. You can have more colds, for example, more asthma,” Dr. Kari Nadeau, a professor at Harvard in the School of Public Health and chair of the environmental health department, he told ABC News.
“If you’re older, you can have more strokes and heart attacks. Over time, it can lead to an increase in cancer,” he added.
In fact, Nadeau estimates that an AQI of 150 is equivalent to smoking about seven cigarettes a day for someone who spends most of their time outdoors.
“We try to make the equivalent of a cigarette, but most likely the smoke from wildfires is much more toxic than a cigarette,” Nadeau said.
Who is most at risk?
Those who have lung conditions such as COPD or asthma, as well as those who suffer from heart disease, are at the highest risk from wildfire smoke.
Children and the elderly are also more likely to be affected.
“Those who are most at risk are those who have chronic underlying lung problems… others include those of extreme age, so those who are very old, very young, particularly due to underdeveloped lungs or older lungs that maybe can ‘ Not handling the larger amount of debris we see in the air,” Davis said.
Exposure to smoke from wildfires can lead to physical changes during pregnancy, and expectant mothers may be at risk of preterm birth or low birth weight babies.
What are the symptoms to watch out for?
While those who are more sensitive may be at risk for severe symptoms, anyone can become ill from smoke from wildfires.
Some of the immediate effects include coughing, difficulty breathing, sore throat and chest pain, according to the CDC.
Officials are warning residents to stay indoors as much as possible, use a tightly fitting N-95 mask when going outside, and try using an air filter at home if one is available.
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