Seattle residents are facing an air quality alert from the National Weather Service that will last through Wednesday evening after smoke from wildfires blanketed the area. Air quality monitoring stations in the region reported ratings from moderate to unhealthy Monday morning, according to The Seattle Times, and even healthy people are being urged to stay indoors.
The smoke is coming from British Columbia and has caused delays at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport due to low visibility, the paper says.
Seattle isn’t the only city that’s currently grappling with air quality issues: People from Oregon to Colorado are facing the air quality fallout from wildfires, according to the Associated Press. Public schools in Portland have even suspended all outdoor sports practices as a result.
Air pollution can come from many different sources.
Air quality alerts are issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in partnership with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in order to alert people that they’re being exposed to unhealthy levels of air pollution. (These alerts are different from the ones you may get about high allergen counts, which let people know when pollen counts are high.)
There are two main categories of air pollution: First, there's ground-level ozone, which is a product of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds that have been exposed to heat and sunlight. This type of pollution is generally caused by motor vehicle exhaust, industrial emissions, gasoline vapors, and chemical solvents, NOAA says.
The second category is particulate matter, such as dust, dirt, soot, and smoke. Particulate matter can be directly emitted into the air by cars, trucks, buses, factories, construction sites, and wood burning, but particles may also be formed in the air when gases from burning fuels react with sunlight and water vapor.
Poor air quality can affect anyone, but those with chronic lung conditions are especially sensitive to it.
When you have particulate matter in the air, like smoke from wildfires, everyone is going to be affected, Raymond Casciari, M.D., a pulmonologist at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, Calif., tells SELF.
Specifically, fumes from fires and pollution create a lot of byproducts like nitric oxide, sulfur dioxide, and diesel exhaust, all of which can cause your lungs and nasal passages to overreact, allergist Tania Elliott, M.D., a spokesperson for the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, tells SELF. "The lungs and nasal passages…act as they would towards a bacteria or a virus, triggering an initial response of coughing and sneezing, and a more long-term response of mucous production and inflammation,” she says.
Your nose and mouth can generally help filter out particles that might be flying through the air, but pollution is concerning because it can become so concentrated, Dr. Casciari says. “There is a point where the amount is so much that it overcomes your natural filtering system,” he says.
Air pollution warnings are also important for people with lung conditions. If you have a lung condition like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), you’re at an especially high risk for complications when the air quality is poor, Jonathan Parsons, M.D., director of the Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care & Sleep Medicine at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells SELF. “The harmful materials in the air can exacerbate the underlying lung disease and result in increased cough, shortness of breath, chest tightness, and wheezing,” he says.
If you’re concerned about the air quality in your area, there are a few things you can do.
For starters, you’ll want to keep tabs on the air quality near you by visiting AirNow.gov, which breaks down air quality reports across the country on any given day, as well as forecasted problematic air quality. That way you'll know what to expect and how else you can prepare.
If the air quality in your area is poor, stay inside as much as possible. If you absolutely need to go outside, wearing a face mask or nasal filter can help filter out particulate matter, Dr. Elliott says. (Dr. Casciari specifically recommends looking for an N95 respirator. This device creates a physical barrier between your mouth, nose, and contaminants in the environment, including fine particles, the Food and Drug Administration says.
When you’re in your car, run your air conditioner—this can help filter out pollution, including particulate matter, Dr. Cascari says. When you’re at home, try to keep your windows closed and do any exercising indoors, Dr. Parsons adds. And, if you’re in an area where wildfires are burning and you have a chronic lung condition, he recommends trying to leave the area for a bit, if possible.
Whatever you do, don't ignore air quality alerts. At best, being out in poor quality air can irritate your lungs. At worst, it can cause serious health repercussions—and that's not a chance you want to take.