Those who are paying attention and have the resources can take steps to improve their air quality and protect their health. The particles in wildfire smoke are about the same size as respiratory particles that carry the coronavirus, so some of the same tools we used during the pandemic also work for wildfire smoke. Indoors, the portable air filtration unit that some people used to scrub viruses from the air will also remove smoke particles. Run it on high. If you must go outdoors, wear a high-quality, well-fitting mask such as an N95 or a KN95, which are designed to filter out at least 95 percent of particles of all types. You may still smell smoke when wearing the mask because gas molecules can pass through it, while the much larger and more hazardous particles are blocked.
There has been newfound attention to gas stoves and the pollutants they generate. One of the greatest concerns is a gaseous pollutant, nitrogen dioxide, rather than a particulate pollutant, but cooking by itself, on any type of stove or in an oven, can generate large amounts of particles in the air. A strong kitchen exhaust fan can remove these pollutants, though there are many kitchens that lack this simple technology.
But air quality is a problem big enough that we cannot leave it to individual actions. Air pollution, including wildfire smoke, causes symptoms like coughing, burning eyes, headaches and difficulty breathing in the short term. Long-term exposure to air pollution is associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, worsened asthma symptoms and other chronic diseases. Furthermore, poor air quality is linked to increased absences from school and work and worse academic performance and cognitive function. There is so much to gain by providing everyone with clean air.
People started paying more attention to indoor air quality during the pandemic because we learned that the risk of transmission was higher in poorly ventilated buildings. Popular media described the use of ventilation and filtration to remove the coronavirus from the air. The White House held the Summit on Improving Indoor Air Quality, and the Environmental Protection Agency issued the Clean Air in Buildings Challenge. Improvements in ventilation and filtration should happen in schools and other buildings, and the federal government provided billions of dollars that could have been used to do so. However, much of this remains unspent or was slow to be used, possibly because of a combination of lack of appreciation for the benefits it could bring and lack of guidance on how to obtain and spend the funds.
As we emerge from a pandemic caused by an airborne virus to skies darkened by wildfires, we cannot return to ignorance and complacency about our air. Through a combination of greater public awareness, more widespread implementation of filtration and other air-cleaning technologies and government guidance, we can move into a new era of cleaner air.