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How to Protect Your Family From Poor Air Quality

University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children'sExperts in Children's Health
Cars at rush hour driving through thick smog

The wildfire smoke blanketing large parts of the United States is especially dangerous to health. A growing body of evidence links wildfire smoke to various health problems.

Wildfire smoke is potentially more hazardous than air pollution from industry and vehicles, says University Hospitals pulmonary specialist David Rosenberg, MD.

The reason is the prevalence of microscopic particles in wildfire smoke. These particles can enter deep in the lungs and get into the bloodstream, affecting respiratory and cardiovascular health and other organ systems.

Hazards of Wildfire Smoke

Poor air quality is bad for your health, especially for those most vulnerable because of age or medical conditions. The burning of organic material such as trees generates volatile chemicals that bind to the small particles entering the body, Dr. Rosenberg says.

“The small particles themselves can cause inflammation, but when coated with volatile organic chemicals, they’re supercharged to cause inflammation,” Dr. Rosenberg says. “These small particles can get into the blood vessels of the heart and other parts of the body, including the brain.”

“Small particulate matter is associated with increases in mortality, heart disease and COPD. There’s even a recent study that shows fine particulate matter is associated with a higher risk of dementia.”

Because the microparticles can break through protective barriers in the lungs, they also make us more susceptible to airborne viruses such as influenza and COVID-19.

Protecting Against Unhealthy Air

It’s important to protect yourself and loved ones as much as possible. Those most vulnerable to the effects of air pollution include:

  • Children
  • Pregnant women
  • Older adults
  • People with chronic heart and lung diseases

When wildfire smoke is present, here are ways to minimize exposure:

  • Keep an eye on air quality reports at airnow.gov
  • Close windows
  • Use a HEPA air purifier
  • Run air conditioning if available
  • Avoid exercise or strenuous activities outdoors
  • Use a particulate respirator if needed. It will have the words “NIOSH” and either “N95” or “P100” printed on it.

“If you smell the smoke and have eye or nose irritation, take that as a warning sign,” Dr. Rosenberg says.

Indoor Air Quality Matters, Too

Dr. Rosenberg says indoor air pollution is also a health concern.

“Gas stoves, fireplaces and burning candles all can generate small particles. No question, it’s a concern for susceptible individuals,” he says.

Recent studies have found that gas stoves are linked to more than 12 percent of childhood asthma cases in the United States. Using exhaust fans and cracking windows will help dissipate pollutants.

Other ways to reduce exposure to indoor air pollution:

  • Avoid using scented candles and air fresheners.
  • Look for cleaning supplies and household products that are less toxic. Many sprays, detergents and other cleaners contain volatile organic compounds, which contribute to chronic respiratory problems, allergic reactions and headaches.
  • Don’t allow smoking in the home.
  • Keep humidity levels below 50 percent.

Dr. Rosenberg says parents should be mindful of protecting children against poor air quality indoors and out.

“You want to be careful with kids. They are more susceptible because their lungs haven’t fully developed. They’re at greater risk for injury from environmental factors,” he says.

“I don’t say that to scare people, but to help people recognize the potential risks and exercise caution.”

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