It’s bad breathing weather in some parts of the US right now. With New York City and much of the Northeast shrouded in an ominous orange haze and blanket of smoke, air quality is poor due to hundreds of wildfires in Canada that have been raging for several days. These wildfires have prompted air quality warnings across much of the country. Even Charlotte, North Carolina, where I am located, was shrouded in heavy fog yesterday.
But there are some practical and effective steps you can take to protect yourself.
We reached out to air quality expert Dan Westervelt, who studies air pollution at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and serves as an air pollution adviser to the US State Department, to find out how Americans can protect themselves. Here’s what we learned.
How dangerous is poor air quality?
Poor air quality can be dangerous for everyone – but especially for people with existing respiratory problems such as asthma, people with lung and heart disease, the elderly and pregnant women.
The New York and Mid-Atlantic regions currently experience air pollution about 10 times higher than what health guidelines note as healthy exposure levels. Westervelt said short-term exposure can lead to adverse health conditions such as cough, sore throat, shortness of breath and stinging eyes, while long-term exposure can lead to chronic heart and lung disease.
Fortunately, there are some effective methods you can use to limit exposure and potential side effects.
Proven ways to protect yourself when air quality is poor
Here are some important steps to take to protect yourself when faced with air pollution from wildfires and more, according to Westervelt.
When indoors, you’ll want to:
- Close all windows.
- Turn on your air purifier or air conditioner with a HEPA filter.
- Avoid any activities that generate more pollution, such as lighted candles and intense cooking. You should also avoid using a gas stove if you have one.
Limiting time outdoors is critical when air quality is poor, but if you must leave your home, Westervelt suggests avoiding strenuous activities such as jogging or running that cause heavy breathing and wearing a face mask. He recommends an N95 or K95, although a well-fitting surgical mask can help block most particulates.
Is using an air purifier an effective method of air purification?
Although air purifiers have become more common in the era of COVID-19, experts are divided on their effectiveness. U.S. manufacturers aren’t allowed to market air purifiers as health products, although CNET’s hands-on tests show that some effectively filter harmful substances from the air—especially if they use a HEPA filter.
“For indoor air quality, many air purifiers work well, especially those that use high-efficiency particulate filters,” according to Westervelt.
He recommends avoiding air purifiers that generate ozone, which will be identified as electrostatic and ionizing air purifiers. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also warns of the risk of ozone-generating purifiers, as ozone molecules can lead to harmful health effects, such as lung damage.
(Learn more about how air purifiers can protect you from wildfire smoke and other allergens and particles.)
Are there other ways to proactively prepare for poor air quality?
Westervelt says air quality forecasts can be an accurate estimate of the air quality index for a region. He recommended airnow.gov as a real-time source for finding air quality data for your city, state or zip code.