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SALT LAKE CITY — Wildfires send smoke, toxins and particle pollution into the air, and Utah’s air has been full of the dangerous gunk this summer.
It spiked with the Coal Hollow Fire, which produced numbers that doubled what meteorologists would classify as “bad.”
“Bad” on the Air Quality Index starts at 101. It’s unhealthy for children, the elderly, and people with heart or lung disease. Anywhere above 150 is unhealthy for everyone.
“I think this is one of the worst summers I’ve seen since I’ve been here, for sure,” said Dr. Denitza Blagev, a pulmonologist at Intermountain Medical Center.
She said wildfire smoke is full particulate pollution – a combination of small and large particles – that adds to existing troubles like ozone problems in the summer mixed with heat, light and altitude.
This creates a layer of issues that “combined, really make it difficult for people to breathe,” Blagev said.
People can usually see the larger particles from wildfires – these are the ones that can irritate the eyes, nose and mouth.
However, the most harmful particles are the tiny ones that aren’t as visible. These can get into the lungs and bloodstream and cause inflammation and damage to the rest of the body.
Blagev said looking out the window and seeing a sky clear of smoke is great, but it’s best to check the Air Quality Index for an accurate report on what’s really in the air and plan accordingly.
Those affected most are young children, the elderly, and people who have underlying chronic issues like asthma, COPD, emphysema, congestive heart failure, or a history of heart attacks and strokes.
“When we’re talking about the sensitive groups, these are the people that are the most vulnerable,” Blagev said.
“Even if you’re a perfectly healthy person with no medical problems, studies have shown people who are exposed to higher levels of air pollution have a higher rate of developing lung and heart problems and even die prematurely,” she added. “Even if you don’t feel it, it’s not good for you. So none of us are invincible.”
Exercising outdoors can exacerbate issues, Blagev said, since taking deep breaths brings more air pollution into the lungs.
For children, whose smaller bodies tend to have higher exposure, this can be problematic because they’re often more active than adults.
“Even if they’re sitting, kids are getting more exposure for the same amount of ambient pollution,” she said.
Blagev’s advice: stay indoors if possible. Unless someone is actively smoking or there’s a fire in the fireplace, the indoor air quality is usually cleaner than the outdoors. If the air outside is bad, it’s best to close the windows and run the air conditioner.
She added that people should be checking the filters on their ACs and furnaces; during periods of high pollution, filters may get dirtier faster than they normally would.
“There are higher levels of filters that trap that fine air pollution and lower-level filters that trap just the big particles,” she said. “You have to be careful if you put a filter on your furnace / AC that is too good for the amount of power that your furnace is generating. You increase the resistance and you can really cause damage to your AC and your furnace.”
The same is true for masks. Simple surgical masks easier to breathe through and are good for large particles, but they won’t get the smaller pollution. The masks that filter out the most particulates — N-95 respirator masks — are problematic because they take a lot more energy to breathe through. Blagev said they tend not to be good for long-term exposure.
"Studies have shown people who are exposed to higher levels of air pollution have a higher rate of developing lung and heart problems and even die prematurely. …none of us are invincible.” — Dr. Denitza Blagev, pulmonologist
For those in a car, Blagev said to make sure the AC is in recirculation mode.
“You want to keep that air inside and clean,” she said. “You don’t want to be bringing in a lot of polluted air from the outdoors.”
As for standalone indoor air purifiers, Blagev said there’s a study to see how much of a difference they make for people with symptoms.
“Those are generally good for just the room they’re in.”
She noted that a lot of her patients with lung problems have them in their homes, and they say it makes a big difference.
One thing people may not realize is that scented candles, air fresheners and vaporizers actually diminish air quality inside the home. If candles are being burned inside, then the indoor air might not actually be cleaner than the outdoor air.
“Generally, the rule of thumb is if you can smell it or see it in the air, it’s not good for you to breathe,” Blagev said.
When the air quality is the way it has been this summer, it’s advised that people check the real-time Air Quality Index before going outside. When smoke fills the air, people should stay inside if they can, keep the windows closed and run the air conditioner. Make sure the filters are clean, too; they’ll get dirty fast.