What is fine particulate matter, the pollutant of concern?
Fine particulate matter is the product of combustion that can arise from fires, such as the Canadian wildfires, and contains burnt material and sometimes other gases and noxious fumes. Inhaling fine particulate matter is like inhaling cigarette smoke but without the nicotine. The smaller the particle, the more likely it is to reach deep into the lungs and potentially allow some contaminants to enter the bloodstream.
How can the current air quality affect our health, and what are the symptoms?
Inhaling particulate matter from fires can irritate the bronchial tubes in the lungs and cause symptoms, such as chest tightness, cough, wheezing, and shortness of breath. In general, short-term exposures are bothersome, but do not have long-term effects.
Other health effects of exposure are that people may be prone to developing respiratory infections such as bronchitis or even pneumonia if the particulate matter interferes with the lungs’ ability to remove infectious organisms.
Some experts are concerned that there may be long-term effects to the heart and lungs, but we currently do not know if there will be any long-term effects of this current exposure caused by the Canadian wildfires.
What kind of precautions should be taken?
People most at risk are those with underlying conditions, such as heart and lung diseases, the elderly, infants, and very young children. Lung disease patients who are most at risk, for example, are those with asthma, emphysema, and pulmonary fibrosis. They should follow precautions, such as limiting outdoor activities, postponing outdoor events, using air conditioning with filters, and masking.
What can people do to limit exposure inside their homes and cars?
Keep the windows closed and use central air conditioning, if available. There may also be a benefit of filters in individual air conditioning units. In cars, people should keep the windows closed and air conditioning on.
Will masks help protect people from poor air quality?
An N95 or particulate respirators can protect you more than surgical masks, and people should consider wearing them. The efficacy depends on wearing them properly. When commuting, people should determine if they should wear masks by analyzing conditions in buses and subways, such as whether they have air conditioning and if the windows are closed or opened.
When should someone consider going to the doctor?
If someone feels persistent symptoms, they should call their physician. There are several treatments that we can consider giving you, such as bronchodilators (which prevent bronchial spasm and open bronchial tubes, which can relieve chest tightness, wheezing, and cough) and inhaled steroids that relieve bronchial inflammation and are often used for patients with asthma.
How long should people expect air alerts to last, and what should they keep in mind during this time?
At this moment, we want to follow state and city public health announcements and air quality measures, such as through AirNow.
Healthy people have a greater reserve than patients with chronic diseases, but even they may develop symptoms. And if you develop any of these symptoms, take similar precautions, such as limiting outdoor activities, air conditioning, and masking. And call your doctor if symptoms are persistent and bothersome.