How Seniors Can Protect Themselves from Wildfire Smoke

How Seniors Can Protect Themselves from Wildfire Smoke

When you hear about wildfire smoke, you likely think about California. And there’s good reason for that: California has been battling wildfires for years. In 2021, California was home to 31% of all wildfires in the United States, according to data from Statistica, with well over 2 million acres burned in that year alone.1

All of that fire leads to copious amounts of smoke, which has been known to cause serious respiratory problems for humans and animals alike. Those on the West Coast may be wearily familiar with taking precautions to make breathing easier.


Earlier this year, the National Weather Service and other government agencies sounded the alarm for the East Coast and the upper Midwest. Not because there were fires ravaging the forests of Pennsylvania or upstate New York, but rather, because there were massive clouds of smoke from wildfires floating down from Canada. 


People recognize borders but nature certainly doesn’t. So whatever wildfires wreak havoc in other parts of the world can quickly come to affect neighboring countries. The vast majority of the wildfire smoke that blanketed the eastern seaboard of the United States this spring and summer came from fires burning thousands of miles away in the Great White North.


If it feels like you’re hearing much more about wildfires lately, it’s because you are. This summer in particular has been plagued with smoke, haze, and pollution wafting through several US states.


Wildfires are a Growing Problem


Photos from the Great Lakes and New York City show a wildfire haze low to the ground, cutting visibility and creating an unhealthy atmosphere that has officials warning people to stay indoors as much as possible, especially the young and the elderly.


Even prior to July – which is the busiest fire month for the country – Canada set a record for the most area burned at well over 10 million hectares (that’s over 24 million acres for the American folk, or an area roughly the size of Indiana). That 2023 record is almost 15% higher than the old record, and there’s still half a year left on the calendar.2


But why is this happening?


As the atmosphere becomes drier, more moisture is sucked out of plants, thus creating easy-to-burn fuel. The weather is much warmer, which means the fire season will last for longer each year. As storms increase in number and intensity, so does the lighting that comes with them. In fact, half of the fires in Canada this year were sparked by the approximately 51,000 lightning strikes that lit up the country during severe storms – and those storms were often “dry” storms that brought very little rain that could be counted on to help fight the resulting fires.


It all combines to create ideal conditions for deadly wildfires to begin.


The Dangers of Wildfire Smoke


You can often see wildfire smoke, and you can certainly smell it. But did you know that the most dangerous particles of the smoke are those that are too tiny to see or even really smell?


These tiny pollutants are called PM 2.5. These particles are tinier than the width of a human hair. They can easily get into your lungs and the smallest of them can even be absorbed right into your bloodstream. And wildfire smoke isn’t like other types of smoke – the pollutants carried by this type of smoke are actually much worse. Some studies have found that the smoke from wildfires is much more toxic than the smoke from vehicle exhaust or even cigarette smoke!3


When those particles invade your respiratory system, you can experience irritation of the eyes and the throat, as well as difficulty breathing. When the particles get into your bloodstream, you can face even more dire consequences, including the possibility of lung cancer.


The CDC has also pointed out that breathing in wildfire smoke can lead to other problems as well; for instance, those with heart disease might experience serious issues, such as a heart attack. Those with asthma or other lung problems, such as those with COPD, are at much greater risk of complications.4


The journal Environmental Health looked at the impact of wildfire smoke in Washington State from 2006 to 2017. The study found that there was an overall 1% higher risk of death on the day wildfire smoke began, and a 2% higher risk of death the day after, for all ages. But when it came specifically to deaths from respiratory problems, the risk jumped by 14% during that time. And for those between the ages of 45 to 64, the risk of death from respiratory illness spiked to 35%.5


The study didn’t look at those over the age of 64, but the scientists hypothesized that the risk of death associated with wildfire smoke was even higher among the elderly, especially those over the age of 75.


There was a time when wildfire smoke was expected in certain areas of the country but was quite rare in other areas. Today, that’s no longer the case. Wildfire smoke can impact anyone, anywhere – the only question is how thick and dangerous that smoke will get. That’s one reason why it’s vitally important to have an emergency button alarm at your fingertips at all times. Choose a mobile medical alert with GPS so you can use it on the go and be easily located no matter where you are.


How Seniors Can Protect themselves from Wildfire Smoke


If any state knows how to protect communities from the harmful effects of wildfire smoke, it’s California. The California Air Resources Board has numerous tips that can help the elderly (and anyone else) stay as safe as possible when wildfires rage and the smoke begins to billow.[6]


·        Check the Air Quality Index. The AQI is reported by and is also offered on local news and radio stations. Online, you can enter in your zip code to see the air quality expectation for that day. There is also a fire and smoke map if you want to see how wildfire smoke is moving. The AQI scale ranks from 0, which means you can enjoy the usual outdoor activity without worry, to 500, which means you should avoid the outdoors entirely.

·        Invest in N95 masks. Remember the best masks from the COVID days? The small particulate matter of wildfires will go right through a cloth mask, rendering them useless. But a well-fitted N95 mask is designed to filter out very tiny particles. They don’t provide complete protection, but they can provide enough to make it safer to go outside. Make sure the mask is marked with “NIOSH” somewhere on the mask itself, as this indicates that it is a true N95 mask that will protect you from particulate matter.

·        Use the right air filters. Wildfire smoke can affect you indoors if you don’t take the proper precautions. Always keep windows and doors tightly closed. If you have an HVAC system, use a filter with at least a MERV13 rating – the higher the rating, the smaller the particles it can capture. Use a rating as high as your system can handle. You can also consider using a CARB-certified air cleaner. Run your air conditioning on “recirculate” to prevent drawing in too much air from the outside.

·        Stay indoors as much as possible. Let’s say you have a doctor’s appointment that will require you to sit in traffic or otherwise be outside for a long time when the air quality is terrible. Can you reschedule that appointment? Cancel the plans to go walking out in the park with friends and instead, exercise indoors at home. Whatever you can do to reduce your trips outside when the air quality index is terrible, do it.

·        Avoid activities that reduce indoor air quality. You want the air you breathe in the house to be as clean as possible. To that end, don’t run the vacuum cleaner, avoid burning candles, don’t use gas stoves, and don’t fry foods on the stovetop. Anything that kicks up dust and other small particles should be avoided.

·        Monitor your health. Pay very close attention to how you feel. Are you feeling any chest pain? Shortness of breath? Have your chronic conditions and the symptoms of them, such as muscle weakness or fatigue, been getting worse? It’s a good idea to have a few items at home to take your vital signs, such as a pulse oximeter to track your oxygen levels and a blood pressure cuff to ensure your blood pressure remains in the proper range. Choose one of Alert1’s many excellent senior alert systems to wear at all times, just in case you need help.

·        Evacuate if you can. When the air quality drops significantly and stays that way for several days, those with COPD, asthma, or other severe lung problems might want to consider going elsewhere. If you have family and friends who live far away from the smoke plume and can host you for a few days, consider taking the trip. It might help preserve your good health while you wait for the wildfire smoke to dissipate to safer levels.


If you are dealing with wildfire smoke because the fires are close to your location, keep your radio on and tuned to your local emergency station. If you are instructed to evacuate, do it immediately – don’t wait! When you do evacuate, make sure you take certain precautions in your vehicle, such as keeping the air on recirculate, keeping the windows rolled up no matter what, and wearing an N95 mask. Make sure you have a full tank of gas. Take all your medications with you, wear a medical alert necklace or pendant at all times, and pay close attention to instructions from emergency services. Alert1 wishes you a safe and healthy summer!