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Smoke traveling from western wildfires spreads bad air quality across the US

Posted at 5:39 PM, Sep 25, 2020

Devastating wildfires across the Western United States have sent smoke traveling across the country and even into Europe. With that smoke comes bad air quality — not just for those near the fires, but for the entire continent.

Satellite images from NASA show smoke thousands of miles from the fire. NASA says the smoke contains aerosols: a combination of particles which carry harmful things into the air and into your lungs. All the things that are burning — trees, grass, brush and even homes — are turned into soot and absorbed by our lungs.

“This pollution, nobody knows how badly it will be affected but if we extrapolate from previous air quality it's not good,” said Dr. Malik Baz, the medical director at the Baz Allergy and Sius Center. “The long-term side effect, we’ll see many, many years down the line.”

Baz operates 13 locations in California, and all of them are busy as Central California is essentially a big bowl surrounded by mountains which trap pollution over the valley. Air quality is always an issue for this part of the state and fires multiply the problem.

“People with respiratory, allergy, asthma, sinus problem — anytime the air quality goes bad, their symptoms get worse,” Baz said. “But this air quality, it doesn’t matter whether you have respiratory problems or not — everyone is affected.”

It's bad in other western cities too.

"This is really an unprecedented wildfire season in 2020,” said Jon Klassen, director of air quality science and planning for San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. “We have fires across most of the states in the western US, Washington, Oregon, California, Seattle. Portland has some of the worst air quality in the world right now, which is shocking because normally they have pretty good air quality."

Klassen’s job is to monitor and improve air quality and help reduce emissions.

“Those sorts of emissions can come off of wildfires or different industrial sources, the burning of different material, and the challenge and the health challenge is that because it’s so small, it can get into your lungs, your bloodstream, cause damage to internal organs,” Klassen said.

A good air quality index score is anywhere from 0 to 50. Some of the cities next to the fires are seeing numbers in the 400s or 500s. California, Klassen says, has had fires burn 3.4 million acres. That's larger than the state of Connecticut as a whole. And that smoke from the western United States isn't just staying local.

“Just the enormous amount of emissions that are going into the atmosphere can get caught up in transport flow from the Pacific over to the Atlantic,” Klassen said. “It can slowly cross the content and into different parts of the country, which is what we’re observing right now.”

Which means use the "see and smell" rule, and watch the air quality index wherever you are.

Sometimes that air can make you feel bad, and doctors advise you watch your symptoms.

“[Symptoms include] lethargy, coughing, wheezing, difficulty breathing, irritation of the eyeballs, sneezing, itching, nasal congestion, headaches,” Baz said. These are also the symptoms of COVID-19, which makes some problems hard to diagnose.

If your air quality isn't good, Baz suggests staying in, avoiding strenuous exercise outside, changing the filters in your home and car and keeping up on your medications and hydration.

And while fires aren't forever, we are unfortunately not yet done with a season that's shaping up to be unprecedented.

“The concern here is we are in the middle of wildfire season,” Baz said. “The past few years, the season has ended in November and we’re in September, so we’ll have a couple months left to go with these fires.”