Public Health Concerns Due to Wildfire Smoke and Ash Exposure
Date: September 10, 2022
Number: NR: 22-140
SACRAMENTO - California Department of Public Health (CDPH) Director and State Public Health Officer Dr. Tomás Aragón urged Californians in areas affected by wildfire smoke to take steps to protect their health, including staying indoors and reducing outdoor activity if necessary to avoid the inhalation of smoke and ash. Californians can check their local air quality index (AQI) at EPA AirNow.
"Wildfires, and the resulting smoke and ash, can be particularly unhealthy for vulnerable people, including children, older adults, those with respiratory illness or asthma, and pregnant people," said Dr. Aragón. "Californians should be aware of the risks of wildfire smoke and ash inhalation. Vulnerable people, especially children, older adults, and those who are pregnant should reduce outdoor activity and stay indoors, if possible."
Wildfire smoke contains fine particles which are respiratory irritants, and when inhaled deeply, can affect the lungs and the heart. Exposure to high concentrations of fine particles can cause persistent cough, runny nose, phlegm, wheezing, and difficulty breathing.
Smoke from wildfires can also cause eye irritation, reduced lung function, and bronchitis. Breathing smoke can also make asthma symptoms worse. People with underlying lung or heart problems should limit their exposure by staying indoors.
People who must work outdoors for long periods, in areas with heavy smoke, or where ash is present, should wear a well-fitting N95 or P100 respirator mask. Since wearing a respirator can make it harder to breathe, those with lung or heart problems should ask their doctor before using one.
Wildfires can also lead to emergency evacuations and it's important to follow the direction of local officials when evacuations are ordered. Current evacuation information can often be found through monitoring local news outlets as well as official social media channels of emergency responders such as a sheriff's office, police department, and fire department.
"During a wildfire event, you should prioritize your safety and the safety of your loved ones. If you are ordered to evacuate your home or the area, please do so immediately," said Dr. Aragón.
Tips to Reduce Smoke and Ash Inhalation
To avoid possible health problems, CDPH recommends taking the following steps:
- Stay indoors. The most common advisory during a smoke episode is to stay indoors, where people can better control their environment. Whether at home or in a public space, indoor environments that have filtered air and climate control can provide relief from smoke and heat.
- Adjust AC to avoid drawing in smoky air. If you have a central air conditioning system in your home, set it to re-circulate or close outdoor air intakes to avoid drawing in smoky outdoor air. Be sure to change your air filter on a regular basis.
- Reduce other sources of indoor air pollution. Smoking cigarettes, using gas, propane and wood-burning stoves and furnaces, spraying aerosol products, frying or broiling meat, burning candles and incense, and vacuuming can all increase particle levels in a home and should be avoided when wildfire smoke is present.
- Reduce physical activity to reduce inhalation of smoky air. During exercise, people can increase their air intake as much as 20 times from their resting level.
- Be ready to evacuate. Monitor wildfire activity in your area and be prepared to evacuate if advised.
- Avoid getting ash into the air as much as possible. Avoiding sweeping it up dry, use water and wet cloth or a mop to clean items and surfaces. Do not use leaf blowers or take other actions that will put ash into the air.
- Use PPE. Wear a well-fitting respirator mask, gloves, long-sleeved shirts, and long pants when cleaning up ash. Avoid skin contact. If you do get ash on your skin, wash it off immediately. Some wet ash can cause chemical burns.
- Vacuums don't filter small particles. Shop vacuums and other common vacuum cleaners do not filter out small particles. They blow such particles out the exhaust into the air where they can be inhaled. The use of shop vacuums and other non-HEPA filter vacuums is not recommended. HEPA filter vacuums could be used, if available.
- Monitor children and young adults. Do not allow children to play with ash or be in an area where ash-covered materials are being disturbed. Wash ash off toys before children play with them. Clean ash off pets. Monitor children and young adults as they may be more susceptible to the health and emotional effects of fire recovery.
- Prepare emergency supplies. Make sure you have an emergency kit, complete with medications, copies of prescriptions and medical supplies.
- Locate nearby shelters, including ones that take pets.
- Medical care. If you experience chest pain, chest tightness or shortness of breath, seek medical care immediately.
For more information on how you can protect yourself during extreme heat, visit the CDPH Extreme Heat site, or the California Office of Emergency Services for resources and information about wildfire recovery. Local public health officials can review guidance for local governments in the CDPH publication, Wildfire Smoke Considerations for California's Public Health Officials (August 2022, PDF).