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Serious Health Concerns Arise From Wildfire Smoke in West as Blazes Char Above-Normal Acreage

With the amount of wildfires on the rise, residents across the West are being warned to protect themselves from the health threat that may become more frequent: wildfire smoke.

So far this year, the United States has had a total of 45,491 fires with 8,754,359 acres burned, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Though the total number of fires this year is below the 10-year average (58,005 fires), the amount of acres burned from wildfires is above the 10-year average of 6,353,870 acres.

Wildfire smoke is made up of a mixture of gases and fine particles (particulates) that get released when things burn, the Washington State Department of Health stated on their website.

The smoke also contains many chemicals such as carbon monoxide, a colorless and odorless toxic gas.

"The real harmful product of the smoke is what you see and that is the particulates," Dr. Norman Edelman, senior consultant for Scientific Affairs for the American Lung Association said.

"We talk about particulates in two forms, the relatively large ones that stick in your nose and can cause a lot of coughing and the fine ones [particulates] that get deep into your lungs are the ones that cause the real trouble. They cause exacerbation of lung disease so if you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), chronic bronchitis or emphysema, it may cause a exacerbation or an attack."

Edelman added that that particulates are very bad for people with asthma. When the air quality is poor, asthma sufferers can experience coughing, wheezing or an asthma attack.

Fine particle pollution is harmful for people with heart diseases; however, the mechanism of that is not clear, Edelman said.

Other individuals who are also likely to be affected from the smoke are older adults, children, pregnant women, smokers, those with respiratory infections such as a cold or flu and individuals who are diabetic or have had a stroke, as stated on the Washington State Department of Health.

While symptoms of wildfire smoke will vary from person to person, individuals exposed to smoke may have shortness of breath, chest pain, headaches, coughing, irritated sinuses, stinging eyes, a sore throat and fatigue, according to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare website.

Health departments across the West have been taking action to alert and protect residents from the smoke that has been produced by the many wildfires burning.

"The Department of Health [in Washington] has been busy making sure our messages about the dangers of smoke are distributed throughout the region. We have focused on warning those with underlying health risks - especially respiratory ailments - young children and the elderly," Greg Nordlund, emergency communications specialist at the Washington State Department of Health said.

Nordlund added that social media messaging has been helpful in broadening their message delivery to the public.

These health departments also give residents ways to protect themselves and their families from the smoke.

They advise residents to pay attention to local air quality reports to know whether it is safe or not to be outside. If air quality levels are deemed unsafe, the best way to protect themselves is to stay indoors.

"The one thing we [American Lung Association] recommend for people who are likely to be sensitive [to the smoke] is that they limit their outdoor exercise because the more they exercise, the more they take it [the smoke] in," Edelman said.

Other ways that residents can protect themselves include keeping windows and doors closed and running an air conditioner that is set on re-circulate. Also, make sure to regularly change air conditioning filters.

"Do not add to the indoor pollution," the Idaho Department of Health stated on their website. "When smoke levels are high, do not use anything that burns, such as candles, fireplaces, or gas stoves. Avoid frying or broiling when cooking."

Both health departments say to avoid vacuuming while smoke is present since it stirs up the particles already inside a home.

Face masks can provide some protection to those affected by the smoke, if using the N-95 mask correctly.

Nordlund state that the Department of Health in Washington has been distributing N-95 masks to the affected area and providing tips on how to use the masks properly.

"Another issue that we have been watching is the effect of the fires on drinking water and sewage systems. Because many of the areas rely on water from wells and small water systems, power failure can limit their use or cause temporary contamination," Nordlund said.

The Washington Health Department advises those with a private wells to boil the tap water to kills germs until the water to can be tested.

Even though the wildfires are burning across the West, the smoke can travel many miles and affect other locations such as the Midwest and into Canada.

"The smoke can carry for long distances so we should not be surprised and skeptical when people living 1,000 miles away say they are getting symptoms from wildfires," Edelman said.

The AccuWeather fall forecast calls for high wildfire risk for California and the Northwest.