Staying safe as wildfire smoke reduces air quality across swathes of the U.S. : Shots - Health News Much of the Northeast U.S. is blanketed in a murky haze of wildfire smoke. For most people breathing this air is unpleasant, for others it can be life-threatening. There are ways to reduce the risk.

Staying safe in smoky air is particularly important for some people. Here's how

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1181139404/1181232278" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

Smoke from Canadian wildfires is polluting the air throughout much of the eastern United States, with New York City and the Washington, D.C., area continuing to see heavy smoke.

A MART├ŹNEZ, HOST:

In the Midwest, cities such as Cleveland and Detroit are also experiencing unhealthy levels of smoke, and these conditions are expected to last through at least the end of the day. So how do you protect yourself then, with your family, from the risks?

KHALID: NPR's Maria Godoy joins us now with some advice. Good morning, Maria.

MARIA GODOY, BYLINE: Good morning.

KHALID: So the air, I will say, at least around here in Washington, D.C. - it's been rather unpleasant. But how dangerous is it?

GODOY: Yeah, I'm in the D.C. suburbs as well, and my air quality was labeled as unhealthy all day yesterday. And it's definitely not pleasant because I've been sneezing and my throat is sore. And in New York, it's been even worse. The city has had some of the poorest air quality in the world this week. One doctor compared it to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.

But this is temporary. So if you are relatively healthy, short-term exposure isn't likely to cause any long-term damage. But for someone who is in a high-risk group, like people with lung conditions like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, this poor air can be a real threat.

KHALID: So what kind of threats? I mean, what dangers are you referring to?

GODOY: Well, so the smoky air is full of tiny particles that you breathe into your airways. And they get down into your lungs. They can even pass into your bloodstream. I spoke to Dr. Keith Brenner. He's a pulmonologist at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. He says for people with chronic lung disease, that can trigger a serious flare-up. And it's also a concern for people with cardiovascular disease.

KEITH BRENNER: There's been studies that track daily amounts of air pollution. On days where it's highest, there's a higher chance of dying of cardiovascular disease.

GODOY: You know, there's lots of evidence that shows hospitalizations for asthma rise when the air quality is bad.

KHALID: So, Maria, I understand the dangers you're describing, but I would say not breathing is really not an option - right? - for folks in this situation.

GODOY: Yeah.

KHALID: So what do you do when the air is this poor?

GODOY: Well, so first you can check the air quality where you live by going to airnow.gov. So that's an EPA site which has a color-coded meter that tells you just how bad things are and when to use caution. And if the air is bad, stay inside as much as possible. Keep the doors and windows closed. If you've got an air purifier, run it on high. They're really good at cleaning up the small smoke particles. And you know, one thing, if you have to go outside - wait for it - mask up.

KHALID: Any mask, any type of mask, is all right?

GODOY: No, not really. I spoke with Linsey Marr. She's an aerosols expert at Virginia Tech. She says the smoke particles, you know, those tiny particles, are really small. In fact, they're roughly the same size as COVID particles.

LINSEY MARR: Just like with COVID, the best mask is going to be a high-quality, well-fitting what we call respirator - an N95 or KN95 or KF94.

GODOY: Marr says surgical masks and cloth masks can also help somewhat if they're close-fitted. But really, if you've got that N95 or K95, that's the best protection. Just make sure it fits properly. You know the drill. Cover your mouth and nose, please.

KHALID: (Laughter) Unfortunately, we do know the drill. And luckily I had some spare KN95s still sitting around.

NPR's Maria Godoy, thank you so much.

GODOY: Thank you.

Copyright © 2023 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.