As record-breaking wildfires rage across Canada and smoke billows across the Midwest and East Coast, you may experience respiratory problems — even if you consider yourself a healthy person with no lung or heart problems.
The Air Quality Index (AQI) tells you how clean or polluted the air is in your city. According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the higher the AQI, the greater the health concerns. Once the AQI reaches 100, air pollution is generally ‘moderate’ or ‘unhealthy for sensitive individuals’. By 200, this changes to unhealthy and very unhealthy.
Many people are quick to compare poor air quality to smoking, another known trigger of respiratory disease. And it’s a valid analogy backed by science.
A 2020 study by the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment found that inhaling smoke from wildfires raises the AQI to 150 for several days equivalent to smoking seven cigarettes a day. (By comparison, the AQI in New York City was more than 300 on Wednesday due to the Canadian wildfires.)
Standing outside all the time puts the AQI at 150, according to the study. However, the researchers found that some of this pollution can find its way indoors. And it has been found that short-term exposure to high levels of wildfire smoke is comparable to chronic exposure to low-level air pollution.
dr Afif El-Hasan, a volunteer medical spokesman for the American Lung Association, told HuffPost that comparing cigarette smoke and wildfire smoke is appropriate. It’s because of how small pollutant particles are, which can include dust, soot, dirt, smoke, liquids and chemicals – all of which end up in our bloodstream. These particles can cause inflammation that also affects our lungs and other parts of our body.
“It’s basically inhaling plants, like tobacco leaves in a cigarette, so that’s right,” El-Hasan said. “In both cases, because you’re burning an organic substance, a lot of different chemicals are released. Some of them immediately irritate the lungs, others are carcinogenic.”
“If you walk into a room where everyone is smoking, you immediately start coughing. It’s the same here.”
– dr Afif El-Hasan, Honorary Medical Spokesman for the American Lung Association
Inhaling smoke can affect you immediately, which is why you are experiencing symptoms including cough, difficulty breathing, asthma attacks, burning eyes, sore throat, runny nose, headache and chest pain.
“I think the comparison between the effects of wildfire smoke and cigarette smoke on the lungs is reasonable.” Brady Scotta companion of American Respiratory Care Association, HuffPost said. “While the specific types and amounts of toxins in wildfire smoke are still being studied, we know that inhaling smoke can be harmful to our lungs and general health. Although wildfire smoke and cigarette smoke may not be the same, the comparison shows that inhaling wildfire smoke can be harmful.”
“If you walk into a room where everyone is smoking, you immediately start coughing,” added El-Hasan. “It’s the same here.”
The long-term effects are also similar, especially for sensitive groups. Because smoking damages blood vessels, making them thicker and narrower, blood clots can form increase the risk of stroke, as blood clots block blood flow to the brain. The smoke from forest fires also increases the risk of stroke 40% in people over 65 years of age and the frequency of heart attacks.
However, other factors could also apply, El-Hasan said. “You also have to think about how long the person is outside, whether they’re actively breathing, and what type of smoke we’re dealing with.”
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What makes smoke so dangerous?
Forest fire smoke is a combination of water vapour, pollutants including carbon monoxide and particulate pollution consisting of acids, chemicals, soot, metals, dust, pollen and mold. All of the air we breathe contains particulate pollution. But it’s the ability of these particles to get into our lungs, especially in high concentrations, that makes inhaling them harmful.
“It’s important to note that even individuals with no pre-existing lung disease can have adverse effects from poor air quality,” Scott said. “When a person is exposed to polluted air, the airways can become irritated, which can lead to coughing, shortness of breath and wheezing. For people who already have asthma or other lung conditions, this can make symptoms even worse.”
Wildfires are typically made up of fine particles, which make up 90% of the pollutants in wildfire smoke. These pollutant particles are small, so they can easily pass through the nose and throat into the lungs and then into the bloodstream.
“Wildfires are unique in several ways,” El-Hasan said. “First, what is burning in this forest is different in each area. Some of it is man-made. You’re dealing with ashes from trees and vegetation, but you could also be dealing with chemicals like plastics.”
Generally, inhalation of plastic fumes B. from forest fires, can increase the risk of heart disease and side effects such as asthma, skin irritation, headaches and damage to nervous and organ systems.
Similarly, cigarette smoke, especially tobacco smoke particles and passive smoke particles, are small enough to pass through the lungs and are quickly absorbed into the bloodstream.
How does smoke affect your lungs?
Fine particles that get into your lungs can cause persistent coughing, phlegm, wheezing, and difficulty breathing. In addition, particle pollution from wildfires can make it harder for your body to remove foreign substances such as viruses and bacteria.
Short term exposure will continue to contribute to respiratory symptoms and effects, including bronchitis, decreased lung function, increased risk of asthma, and increased risk of emergency room visits and hospitalizations.
“The lungs will heal themselves by getting rid of the particles one way or another. Ultimately, the ash you inhale gets filtered in the upper airways, or lungs,” El-Hasan said. “The chemicals that enter the bloodstream via the lungs will hopefully eventually be neutralized by the liver.”
However, it can be more difficult to filter out and resolve the reaction you are having to smoking when you are part of a sensitive group. This includes people with asthma and other respiratory conditions, people with cardiovascular disease, children under 18, pregnant women, older adults, people in low-income and marginalized communities, and field workers.
Likewise both Cigarette and wildfire smoke can linger in the lungs and air for long periods of time. The smoke from a forest fire can last for days, El-Hasan said. “Even after the forest fires are extinguished, particles are still being sent to us. There are still ash and gases expelled from the parts that burned.”
Even as the air clears, it’s important to check your city’s air quality and take the right steps to protect yourself.
What can you do to protect yourself from smoke?
Limiting your exposure is the best thing you can do. However, this can be difficult for people who work or work outdoors experience exposure disparities.
Prevention options for people who are more likely to be exposed to smoke — such as those living in older homes with less ineffective indoor air filters — include wearing N95 masks and using electric HEPA air filters in one room at a time.
“Try to stay indoors, make sure you have an air filter if you can, but also make sure you take your medication and that you have your medication if you’re someone with chronic lung disease – or suffering from heart disease “We are available if there is a problem,” said El-Hasan. “This is not the time when you want to say, ‘My inhaler isn’t working’.”