While the smoke originating from the wildfires burning across British Columbia, Canada, may be producing picturesque, red-tinted views for the residents of the Pacific Northwest, the detrimental effect that it is having on the air quality of the region is reaching troubling levels, causing many experts to worry.
In fact, on Aug. 2, the fires caused particulate pollution in Tacoma, Washington, to reach levels of 122 µg/cubic meter, according to AirNow.gov. For reference, on the same day in Beijing, one of the most polluted cities in the world, the particulate pollution reached levels of only about 48 µg/cubic meter.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), particulate matter, a term for the tiny particles suspended in the air, is one of the chief pollutants of concern when it comes to wildfires. It can cause adverse effects on the cardiovascular and respiratory systems with only short to moderate exposure, and long-term exposure has been tied to numerous chronic conditions.
“A lot of times with smoke and other pollutants, the particles are small enough that they can be absorbed into your bloodstream,” said Faith Eherts, an AccuWeather meteorologist and specialist in air quality. “[Long-term exposure] can cause problems, and there are a lot of studies where kids that grow up near highways or in big cities are a lot more prone to asthma and other cardiac and respiratory problems.”
Particulate matter is very small, measuring less than 1 µm in diameter, over 60 times smaller than the width of a human hair. High concentrations in the atmosphere scatter light and reduce visibility, causing the vibrant sunsets that have been seen scattered across social media in the past few days.
Burning bush?! No, just another smokey Okanogan sunset.#Washington#outdoors pic.twitter.com/b6hzbQaZcu
— Patrick Thier (@PatrickThier) August 3, 2017
Sunset with the red haze in Tracyton is the reminder of the wildfires in BC #sunsets #sunset🌅 #washingtonsunset #b… https://t.co/9pta3Ylcal pic.twitter.com/xjAqaQk8dI
— Terri Rosselli (@IntentionalRose) August 3, 2017
Smokey skies call for #wildfire sunsets. Check out this photo taken by @IrfanDesign of last night's sunset over Lake Washington in Kirkland. pic.twitter.com/h2Nk5PJKrD
— KIRO 7 Brooke (@KIRO7Brooke) August 3, 2017
If you live in Eastern Washington go out somewhere & watch the sunset. It will appear blood red. These are from yesterday's sunset. pic.twitter.com/GVwmYcv8GW
— 🌹 el guapo 🌹 (@edgar20dguez) August 3, 2017
However, the health concerns surrounding the British Columbia wildfires far outweigh the beauty that they produce. According to the EPA, even a few days or weeks of exposure to particulate matter has been linked to eye and respiratory tract irritation, reduced lung function, bronchitis, diminished immune system function and even an elevated risk for premature death, especially for higher-risk individuals.
As a precaution, experts suggest that those residing in affected areas should make every effort to steer clear of pollutants, mainly by staying inside.
“Staying indoors with the air conditioning on helps filter out a lot of the problems,” Eherts said. "Don’t exercise on days [where pollutant levels are high], especially if you have a pre-existing condition. Really just avoiding it is the best thing you can do.”
Up-to-date reports on air quality in the region can be found at http://wasmoke.blogspot.com/