Air Quality

Smoke from wildfires and structure fires can affect health: eye and throat irritation, coughing, and difficulty breathing. The following tips from the Association of Bay Area Health Officers (ABAHO) will help protect you before, during and after an air quality emergency,

Preparedness

  • Identify locations in the community that have cleaner, filtered air spaces, such as:
    • Indoor shopping malls
    • Local libraries
    • Cooling centers
    • Community centers
    • Civic centers
    • Local government buildings
  • Plan to go to a cleaner air location if you are unable to seal your home or if dense smoke occurs during hot weather events and you cannot stay in your home. Heat takes precedent over smoke.
  • Stay informed by signing up for alerts from Cal Fire, your city or county, local air quality district, or local public health department.
  • Weatherize homes and buildings in preparation for wildfires by replacing or refurbishing old leaky windows and doors; use caulking to seal the openings.
  • Consider purchasing a non-ozone-producing air purifier (HEPA) to create a cleaner air room in your home, or consider purchasing a MERV 13 or greater filter for your HVAC system to be used when experiencing a heavy smoke event.
  • Consider upgrading to an HVAC system that allows for both heating and cooling. Be sure it includes a mechanism to switch to “recirculate” to prevent smoke from entering the space.
  • There is no clear evidence that N-95 respirator use by members of the general public is beneficial to an individual’s health during wildfire smoke air quality events, and there could be harms.
  • Create a personal, family, or group emergency plan, gather emergency supplies, and be ready to evacuate.

Individuals with Health Conditions

  • Individuals with health conditions should talk to their physicians to develop a personal plan for dealing with smoke.
  • Elderly persons, pregnant individuals, children, and individuals with respiratory illnesses are particularly susceptible to elevated air pollution levels and should take extra precautions to avoid exposure.
  • Those with heart or lung disease, older adults, pregnant individuals, and children should avoid prolonged or heavy exertion, and should either reschedule outdoor activities or move them to another location.
  • Elevated particulate matter in the air can trigger wheezing in those who suffer from asthma, emphysema, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), or other respiratory conditions.
  • Asthmatics should follow their asthma management plan.
  • Keep up to two weeks’ worth of extra medication on hand. Be ready with plans to treat asthma or diabetes when there is smoke.
  • Individuals should contact their physician if they have cough, shortness of breath, or other symptoms believed to be caused by smoke. Concerned individuals should consult their physician for personalized recommendations.

During Smoke Events

  • Shelter in place. Staying indoors with windows and doors closed, where air quality is better, is the best way to protect your health. During high heat and heavy smoke events, keep indoor air cool or visit an air-cooling center.
  • Set air conditioning units and car vent systems to re-circulate to prevent outside air from moving inside.
  • Smoke can irritate the eyes and airways, causing cough, a dry scratchy throat, runny nose, trouble breathing, and irritated sinuses. Stay hydrated by drinking water during heavy smoke events.
  • Avoid adding additional air pollution by curtailing activities, such as wood burning, lawn mowing, leaf blowing, driving, barbecuing, smoking, or other dust-producing activities. Avoid using hairspray and painting indoors. If possible, use the stove fan when cooking.
  • Leave the affected area if possible, for the duration of the heavy smoke event.

About Masks

  • Masks may not provide you with the protection needed.
  • Bandanas and typical surgical masks do nothing to protect against wildfire smoke particles.
  • There is no clear evidence that N-95 respirator use by members of the general public is beneficial to an individual’s health during wildfire smoke air quality events, and there could be harms.
  • Masks, even when worn properly, can become uncomfortable and hot.
  • A properly fitted N-95 respirator makes it difficult to breathe and is difficult to use for long periods of time.
  • Taking a mask on and off can cause fine particulate matter to build up in the mask, which the wearer will breathe when it is put back on the face.
  • If an individual desires a mask, only N-95 or N-100 respirators should be worn.
  • Wearing an ill-fitted mask can lead to a false sense of security and to over exertion.
  • Do not save and reuse N-95 respirators.
  • N-95 respirators may be dangerous for certain persons with lung or heart conditions and may lead to
    • Increased heart rate
    • Increased respiratory rate
    • Labored breathing
    • Increased heat-related illness
  • Certified N-95 respirators are not available for children. Children should not wear these masks – they do not fit properly and can impede breathing.

Access additional public health information with the following links:  

Stay up to date with the following links:

  • Visit sfdph.org  for public heath information related to air quality. 
  • Visit airnow.gov for current and forecasted air quality conditions in the Bay Area.
  • Visit baaqmd.com for forecasted wind and smoke directions via the Wildfire Smoke Advisory.