Skies across the American West have glowed orange due to fires for weeks in some areas, and the blazes continue to grow. In Los Angeles County, the smoke has triggered an unhealthy air quality warning from the Department of Public Health.
“It is difficult to tell where smoke, ash, or soot from a fire will go, or how winds will affect the level of these particles in the air, so we ask everyone to remember that smoke and ash can be harmful to health, even for people who are healthy,” L.A. County Public Health Officer Dr. Muntu Davis told KTLA. “These precautions are particularly important for children, older adults, and people with heart or lung diseases.”
Symptoms of smoke exposure often include throat and eye irritation, wheezing, sneezing, couching, chest discomfort, even in healthy adults. For children and teenagers, the risks of exposure are even greater, according to EPA guidelines, because their bodies take in more air–and thus more pollution–per pound of body weight than adults, among other factors.
While conditions may begin to improve a bit for some coastal communities as soon as this weekend, areas that are farther inland or closer to the active burn areas will likely be exposed to hazardous conditions for some time.
Experts say the best thing to do is stay indoors as much as possible, doing what you can to keep your indoor air quality the best it can be. That means keeping all doors and windows closed if the temperature allows and not burning candles, smoking, or even cooking in ways that would create indoor pollution. If you have air conditioning, the EPA encourages running it, so long as you are using all appropriate filters, and your unit is not the type that directly pushes outdoor air into your home.
For those who want additional peace of mind about indoor air quality, an air purifier is an option–but note that not every product on the market will actually do much to get particulates out of the air. Some may even create new ozone or have electrical issues that could spark a new fire. A list of specific models that have been certified for basic safety by the California Air Resources Board can be found online, but the CARB doesn’t offer guidance on effectiveness. In July, consumer review website Wirecutter offered recommendations on top models, though many of their picks are currently sold out at major retailers.
If you do venture outdoors, the face covering you’re already wearing to help slow the spread of COVID-19 may help with protecting you from some smoke (as long as its a real mask, not a bandana or scarf), but for serious protection, experts say you may need to consider N-95 or P-100 style masks. Another tip for going out: Be sure your car air conditioning system is set only to recirculate indoor air, not suck in smoky air from outside.
Oh, and if you’re only going outside to take photos of the crazy sky? Maybe just don’t bother.