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How to protect your health during smoky conditions

Dr. Kate Sutherland can see the Foothills from her office at Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center in Boise— though the hills sometimes disappear in the haze.

“When there’s really bad forest fire smoke, you can’t even see the Foothills,” said Sutherland, later adding: “I sit here and I think about how hard it’s going to be for a lot of my patients who are struggling to breathe on a day like this.”

Some cancel appointments to avoid exposure to the air pollution.

One of the things she and other pulmonologists are frequently asked: Is exposure to wildfire smoke during the summer going to increase my risk of getting cancer?

“It’s probably not going to increase your risk of lung cancer,” she said. “We do have some science to show that urban firefighters who day after day, month after month, year after year, they’re at some increased risk. But the average person going out in forest fire smoke, there’s not that risk.”

The primary concern is that polluted air can exacerbate existing health conditions, such as lung and heart disease, and make even people with healthy lungs feel lousy.

“Suppose you are a person who doesn’t have chronic lung disease, and you think, ‘Oh, I can go up there and do my usual run in the Foothills,’ ” Sutherland said. “If you start having coughing, sneezing, you’re producing phlegm, your chest is a little tight — that’s your body telling you, even though, the air quality index is low, or moderate, maybe you shouldn’t be outside.”

Sutherland has some practical advice for those in sensitive groups — and those who are generally healthy — to avoid unnecessary suffering during wildfire season, when smoke from wildfires all over the West and Canada settles in the Treasure Valley.

If you’re having a reaction to the smoke or other pollutants, or worried that you might regardless of the air quality index, Sutherland recommend that you:

  • stay indoors, or limit time outdoors

  • don’t vacuum (stirs up particulates)

  • don’t burn candles

  • check the air filters on air conditioners (make sure they are clean)

  • check what kind of air conditioner you have (make sure it’s recirculating indoor air, not pulling in air from outside).

Get up-to-the-minute air quality conditions online through the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality’s AirNow website and Idaho Smoke Information blog. Find out about wildfires burning around the West at the National Interagency Fire Center’s inciweb site.

Should you buy a mask to filter out the smoke?

That’s an individual decision, but Sutherland advises those buying masks to be sure they are designed to filter out particles that are smaller than 10 micrometers; a micrometer is one millionth of a meter. She recommends the N95 masks, which may be purchased at stores such as Home Depot and online.

“Using an N95 mask is good idea for people in those high-risk groups or someone who might be have to be outside for some unforseen reasons,” Sutherland said. “It blocks the inhalation of particles of lower size. It is much much better than a standard dust mask. A standard dust mask does not protect you very well.”

It’s something generally healthy people might consider for use outside when conditions are at orange and red air quality levels, Sutherland said. Orange alert means pollution levels are unhealthy for sensitive groups, and red means people in all groups may be impacted.

She said she wears the N95 masks during half our examinations and as a protective measure when near someone who may have been exposed to tuberculosis. The masks are not comfortable, and probably not something you’re going to want to wear while exercising.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says people with heart disease, respiratory conditions, the elderly and children can benefit from a freestanding indoor air filter with particle removal.

Katy Moeller: 208-377-6413