Here's how wildfire smoke can affect your health

Smoke from regional wildfires has created unhealthy air quality in the Treasure Valley and beyond.

BOISE - It's what most people are talking about this week: thick smoke and haze blanketing the Treasure Valley and surrounding areas.

Fires are roaring across the Northwest and we're seeing and feeling the effects here in Idaho.

"When you walk outside you can literally taste the smoke and smell the smoke in the air," Dr. John East with Saint Alphonsus Pulmonary Medicine said.

It's cause for concern when it comes to your health; all that smoke has pushed our air quality into the 'unhealthy range' through 10 a.m. Thursday morning. The haze has been hovering over the valley for the past few days but it has grown increasingly worse, especially as fires in central Idaho and neighboring Montana and Oregon continue to rage.

MORESmoke from fires pushes air quality into 'unhealthy' range

The wind pattern and pressure system is just right to push the smoke into this area - prompting a statewide Red alert (Air Quality Index of 155) for the first time this year.

Wildfire smoke from dozens of regional fires is trapped in the Treasure Valley as it takes the path of least resistance, along with everything fires torch in their path.

"What's happening is we are having more of an easterly flow because of the high pressure system. The smoke is draining down through our area right now," said Mike Toole, with the DEQ. "Everything is on fire in the Northwest. Unfortunately there's fires everywhere right now."

Based on the fuels being consumed by the regional fires, Toole says the air we're breathing in could consist of burned trees, sagebrush, grass, wild shrubs, and bushes.

"It's just a whole lot of that just all up in a big thing of smoke," he added.

Even up high above the valley at Bogus Basin, you can't escape the oppressive smoke.

But KTVB wanted to find out: can we compare breathing this air in to anything else we might experience?

"It's hard to compare this directly to something like smoking cigarettes or hanging out around a campfire," Dr. East told KTVB, "The degree of smoke exposure really isn't on par with smoking cigarettes."

"If you were sitting right next to a campfire and started throwing sagebrush and all that, it's hard to say, I don't want to try to compare the two," Toole said. "These wildfires are extremely dangerous and putting out a ton of smoke. As far as the smoke goes, the constituency is probably similar."

The contents of our air can be dangerous and put people at risk because wildfire smoke is made up of water vapor, a mixture of gases, and fine particles produced when wood and other organic materials burn.

"The big concern right now is PM2.5 which is particulate matter in the smoke but it's the smaller molecules that can maybe get a little deeper in to the lungs," Toole said.

You might be experiencing effects right now.

"It may cause irritation of your eyes, burning of your eyes, burning of your throat or irritation of your throat," Dr. East said. "Even in people with underlying lung problems, if you're exposed to this on an ongoing basis, it will cause irritation to your lungs. It may cause symptoms such as cough."

But it can really aggravate sensitive groups: those with underlying heart or lung problems, children and the elderly. When the air quality is in this unhealthy range, those more sensitive people are encouraged to stay indoors and avoid extended outdoor exertion.

East says whenever the air quality is poor in the Treasure Valley, people with respiratory problems have more symptoms and there is an increase in calls to doctors' offices, visits to urgent cares and emergency rooms, and some patients most seriously affected end up getting hospitalized.

"Even for people with healthy lungs, when you're out in this repeatedly day after day it does have a cumulative effect," he said. "Anybody who's exercising outside is going to end up being affected by it. And you're probably not going to, frankly, feel as well if you're breathing this poor quality air as when you're breathing air that's not polluted."

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"The main thing there is to reduce the exposure," Toole added. "By that we recommend that everybody try to stay indoors and if you are outdoors, try not to exert yourself."

Under this advisory no outdoor open burning is allowed, including campfires, recreational fires, weed control burning and residential burning.

Some nearby areas - such as Garden Valley and Idaho City - have been in the 'very unhealthy' (purple) or 'hazardous' (dark purple) categories at different points today.

The DEQ will re-assess the air quality on a county-by-county basis Thursday morning.

© 2017 KTVB-TV


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