Top Lung Doctors Just Listed 10 Ways to Protect Yourself From Wildfire Air Pollution in the Northeastern U.S.

Air pollution from wildfires "can be lethal," says a chief executive at the American Lung Association. Here's how experts say you can protect your family until the smoke settles.

The most harmful air pollutant worldwide is fine particulate matter. And the biggest natural source of this fine particular matter is wildfire smoke. This week the smoke from the ongoing Canadian wildfires engulfed much of the Northeastern United States, leading to what health authorities called record-breaking, “unprecedented” poor air quality in some parts. As a result, health officials are urging people in high-risk groups, such as children and those with underlying lung diseases, to take caution.

The Canadian wildfire season runs from May through October, and fires have been spreading for the past six weeks, according to media reports. Canada is set for its most destructive wildfire season ever, likely due to climate change and droughts. But how does the smoke from Canada make it to New York City, Vermont, and elsewhere? Wind patterns carry smoke directly from the fires. “Air travels,” says Deb Brown, MS, Chief Mission Officer for the American Lung Association. “Wildfire smoke poses a serious health hazard to those who live and work in an area.”

These very tiny particles can travel deep into your lungs and bloodstream, she tells The Healthy @Reader’s Digest. “Particle pollution from wildfires can trigger an asthma attack, heart attacks, and strokes, and can be lethal.”

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Brown and some lung specialist colleagues say you can protect yourself and your loved ones by practicing the following tips to protect yourself from wildfire smoke:

Knowing what to look out for

Coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and chest discomfort can all be caused by breathing in smoky, polluted air says Timothy Daum, MD, a pulmonologist at the University of Michigan Health-West in Wyoming, MI. Other symptoms may include a dull headache, lightheadedness, or dizziness.

Making sure you have enough meds on hand

If you have a lung disease or any chronic illness that requires treatment, have your medications at the ready and have extras on hand—just in case, says Brown.

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Monitoring your air quality

So far, 15 states and counting have issued poor air quality alerts. Find out where your neighborhood stands by visiting Airnow.

“Air quality index suggests a top level of 50 for healthy air, and New York City is usually around 35. Yesterday (June 6, 2023), it was 500,” says Neil Schachter, MD. He’s a professor of pulmonary and community medicine and medical director of pulmonary rehabilitation at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. He is the author of several books, including the forthcoming Life and Breath: The Good Doctor’s Guide to COPD, Asthma, and Long COVID.

Wearing masks outdoors

During the COVID-19 pandemic, masks were advised for crowded indoor settings, but the rules are different with smoke. “Wear a mask if you need to go outside,” says Schachter. It doesn’t have to be an N95 or KN95 mask. “Even a cloth mask will help, since particulates are much larger than viruses,” he says.

Staying inside if you are at high-risk

“Those most at risk of adverse health consequences from exposure to fine particulates and wildfire smoke include those with pre-existing pulmonary and cardiac disease, including asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and coronary artery disease,” Dr. Daum says. “Significant exposure can also lead to adverse health outcomes such as acute coronary events and blood clots in the lungs for those with no prior history of health issues.”

Children are especially vulnerable to air pollution, says the American Lung Association’s Brown. “They are more susceptible to smoke as their lungs are still developing and breathing in more air and consequently more pollution for their size,” she says.

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Running air filters in your home

These work by trapping particles, but not all air purifiers do a good job of removing smoke particulates. The most effective against smoke has a HEPA filter and a large fan that helps to force air through a fine mesh to trap particles. Also, turn on the air conditioning which will filter larger particulates from the air, Dr. Schacter says.

Keeping windows closed

This will keep smoke outside as it can enter through windows, doors, vents, air intakes, and other openings, Schachter says.

Skipping exercise–even indoor workouts

“When you exercise, you inhale more air and more pollutants,” Schachter says.

Trying not to turn on your gas stove

“This will raise nitrogen dioxide levels in the home, especially with the windows shut,” Schachter says. Instead, use a microwave or air fryer, he advises.

Not engaging in catastrophic thinking

This poor air quality won’t last forever, and being proactive and taking some easy precautions can help you stay safe until it blows out.

For more wellness updates, subscribe to The Healthy @Reader’s Digest newsletter. Keep reading:

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Deb Brown, Chief Mission Officer for the American Lung Association. Timothy Daum, MD, pulmonologist, University of Michigan Health-West, Wyoming, Mich. Neil Schachter, MD, professor, pulmonary, and community medicine, medical director, pulmonary rehabilitation, Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City.

Denise Mann, MS
Denise Mann is a freelance health writer whose articles regularly appear in WebMD, HealthDay, and other consumer health portals. She has received numerous awards, including the Arthritis Foundation's Northeast Region Prize for Online Journalism; the Excellence in Women's Health Research Journalism Award; the Journalistic Achievement Award from the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery; National Newsmaker of the Year by the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America; the Gold Award for Best Service Journalism from the Magazine Association of the Southeast; a Bronze Award from The American Society of Healthcare Publication Editors (for a cover story she wrote in Plastic Surgery Practice magazine); and an honorable mention in the International Osteoporosis Foundation Journalism Awards. She was part of the writing team awarded a 2008 Sigma Delta Chi award for her part in a WebMD series on autism. Her first foray into health reporting was with the Medical Tribune News Service, where her articles appeared regularly in such newspapers as the Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times, Dallas Morning News, and Los Angeles Daily News. Mann received a graduate degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and her undergraduate degree from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. She lives in New York with her husband David; sons Teddy and Evan; and their miniature schnauzer, Perri Winkle Blu.