Massive plumes of smoke from the California wildfires have traveled across the country, and may be exposing millions of Americans to fine particles that can damage their lungs.
There are 12 fires raging in California, decimating more than 10,000 acres and forcing more than 20,000 people to flee for their lives.
But even out of the blaze’s reach, people in California and far beyond may be in danger of inhaling toxic matter from the fire.
The National Weather Service’s new map shows that the West Coast is enveloped in dangerously thick smoke which is set to cross the country, even reaching the Easwt Coast.
At lower concentrations, smoke still can cause eye and lung irritation, especially for older people, children and those who already suffer from cardiovascular and respiratory problems.
One of the recent California fires, the so-called Holy Fire, has killed six firefighters trying to contain it, but smoke always kills more people than fire.
And many of its effects may be imperceptibly causing damage that can add up, increasing risks of chronic diseases over time.
In house fires, people are more likely to die from oxygen deprivation due to a high concentration of smoke than from the fire itself.
Wildfire smoke is less dangerous because it is not trapped in such a tight space, but that doesn’t mean it is without its dangers.
Even if you can’t see it in the air, if there is smoke in the area you might feel your chest tighten. Smoke can quickly make your breathing feel more labored and even cause wheezing, shortness of breath and coughing.
‘Many people may have respiratory symptoms when breathing smoky air. The good news is that most symptoms are short-lived, and resolve as smoke dissipate,’ said Dr Karin Pacheco, of the division of environmental and occupational health sciences at National Jewish Health in Colorado.
But exposure to smoke can add a subtle risk factor for your long-term heart and lung health.
The most dangerous component of smoke is the smallest one, called fine particulate matter (PM).
Solid burned matter mixes with water droplets in the air to form PM which can sneak into the lungs and lodge itself there.
PM also sparks a chain reaction in the body that can worsen heart and circulatory problems as well as breathing issues.
The fine particles trigger inflammation and the release of chemicals that instigate blood clotting as well.
Effects like these increase the risks of heart attack, stroke and heart arrhythmia down the line.
For people who already in sub-prime heart health, smoke can quickly strain the body, so the danger of a heart attack or stroke just after serious smoke inhalation is not to be taken lightly.
The weaker respiratory systems of children, older people and those with asthma or compromised immune systems may make them vulnerable to more serious health effects from smoke inhalation.
But the amount of smoke billowing from the California fires is easily enough to bring out symptoms in even otherwise health people.
For those in California and neighboring states, in order to avoid the damage and discomfort of smoke inhalation, the best thing to do is get physically as far away from it.
If you cannot leave the area, the best thing to do is to stay inside with your doors and windows tightly closed.
When you do venture outside, limit your respiration rate by taking your time and do your best to avoid physical activity or exercise outdoors.
There will not be enough smoke drifting over the rest of the country to make this necessary, but little to stop people from inhaling poorer quality air from the fine particulate matter.
Ultimately, ‘for most healthy people, low amounts of wildfire smoke are more unpleasant than a health risk,’ said Dr Pacheco, but precautions can help keep that risk to a bare minimum.