By Bruce A. Smith
As our smoke-filled skies broached its second week, local health experts report that they haven’t seen any increase in respiratory distress.
“Fortunately, we haven’t seen a uptick in 911 calls for breathing problems,” South Pierce Fire and Rescue Chief Lloyd Galey told the Mountain News on Monday, August 7.
Chief Galey’s observations were buttressed by the Tacoma Pierce County Health Department’s smoke expert Judy Olson:
“The good news is that we haven’t seen any change in the number of Emergency Department visits,” she told the Mountain News on Monday. “But we will be looking at cardio-vascular issues in the upcoming days and week because there are often delays between exposure and a hospital visit for those patients.”
Official concerns exist across agencies.
“Everyone is concerned about the health impacts of the smoke,” affirmed Camille Saint-Onge, Communications Director for the Department of Ecology, who forecasted unhealthy air through Wednesday for western Washington.
Even though there are no statistical horror stories, there are plenty of anecdotal complaints. Olson acknowledge that she has heard socially of people complaining of headaches, sore throats, and feeling poorly.
However, Olson suggested that many asthma sufferers may be avoiding a hospital stay because they already have a more comprehensive approach to maintaining pulmonary health than the average person. She cited her work with asthma groups, and characterized their customary health regimen, which includes extra medications, special breathing devices, and behavioral protocols for stressful occasions such as dirty air.
Some of those preparations may be applicable to the general public. Olson suggested that anyone experiencing breathing difficulties consider purchasing a face mask designed to filter the fine particles prevalent in wood smoke. She recommended a mask rated “N-95” at least, which is commonly found in hardware stores and construction supply houses. N-95 masks can remove bits of pollution as small as 2.5 microns, and these masks are easily identified by their numeral markings and the presence of two straps that insure a tight fit.
“The rectangular masks that loop over one’s ears and are found in doctor’s offices don’t filter particles that small,” Olson said.
In addition, she said that other kinds of common dust masks, such as found in grocery stores – the round, single-strap masks – also do not filter the small particles. The 2.5 micron threshold is particularly important because particles of that size can penetrate deeply into the lungs and cause pulmonary distress.
Olson also recommended that households needing a higher level of protection invest in air purifiers.
“HEPA-rated air filters are most effective,” she said, and advised that these devices come in many sizes, suitable for either a bedroom, an office, or the entire home. “Good ones cost between $50-100 and can be found at most home appliance stores.”
Further, Olson suggested avoiding any air purifier that uses ionizing or static electricity technology, such as an ozone generator. These devices create airborne ions that can irritate lung tissue.
She also recommended finding air conditioning.
“Staying cool can help breathing,” Olson said, but warned that the air still needs to be filtered for best results. “The bottom line is to trust your body and tailor your activities to what you can handle. Avoid other contaminants and irritants, such as harsh cleaning solutions, or activities that are too taxing.”
Regardless, we will all have to maintain our cool. Contaminated air is still forecasted for the Puget Sound area through Thursday. Currently, the Washington Air Quality (WAQA) reading in Puyallup is 170, which is deemed “unhealthy.”