Forest Fire Smoke Protection
November 12, 2018 11:30 PM   Subscribe

Where are good sources to learn about smoke, that aren't just ads for masks? Do you have any opinions to share about types of masks, or indoor air filters? How similar is smog (say, in Beijing) and smoke from a forest fire?

We live in Bellingham, Washington. There's a border between us and Canada, but not a geographic barrier. We sit at the bottom of the Fraser River Valley. Icy winds sweep down in the winter; lately enormous forest fires have sent heavy smoke in the summer. We have friends and family in California; even those most unlikely to fear fire itself can't breath when they go outside. I know nothing about protection from particulate-filled smoke, but smoke will be back in Bellingham next year.

Thank you for any information you can share.
posted by kestralwing to Health & Fitness (8 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: The California Department of Public Health has some information, including a document on the use of respirators.

The Wirecutter also has filter advice and detailed air purifier reviews.
posted by zachlipton at 1:01 AM on November 13, 2018

Best answer: Last summer, after a couple weeks of bad smoke, I finally gave in and ordered an air filter (one of the ones recommended by the Wirecutter). It made a huge difference in the indoor air quality (even with windows shut you can't keep all the smoke out for weeks). I don't know if it was enough to make any measurable health difference, but it was definitely a quality of life improvement.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:02 AM on November 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Hi there, long time BC resident, currently in Kamloops, and for the past two summers we've had smoke from forest fires that I would describe as apocalyptic. We used N95 respirators, name-brand, not whatever was cheapest at Amazon. We wore them any time we were outside. Worked great for the smoke. Indoors we relied on a good furnace filter. Also, and this is anecdotal, I found that keeping lubricating eyedrops handy was worthwhile for me.

Don't under any circumstance use the cheapo blue paper surgical masks, they just make you breathe that shit in deeper than you otherwise would.
posted by Sternmeyer at 6:28 AM on November 13, 2018

Best answer: Smog and smoke from a forrest fire present very similar threats - they both are made up of particulate matter, which is essentially lots of tiny bits and pieces suspended in the air. This stuff getting into your lungs, and into your bloodstream, and into your blood-brain barrier, is why breathing bad air is very, very bad for us.

You can learn more about this from your area's Department of Health - or, more generally, any department of health that has good online information about this stuff, or a department of health in a fire-prone area. Key search terms are: air quality, air quality index, indoor air, and particulate matter - or, search by health outcomes like asthma, copd, and heart disease (but that'll get a lot more general info).
posted by entropone at 6:46 AM on November 13, 2018

Best answer: Check out air filters for your house that have MERV ratings.

MERV 13 filters are the minimum for removing smoke from the air, but higher rated filters will remove particulate more efficiently.
posted by gregr at 7:48 AM on November 13, 2018

Best answer: Dr. Richard Saint Cyr's blog, My Health Beijing, discusses both wildfire and China's air pollution (he lived there for a decade). I consulted his blog quite a bit when I lived there myself.
posted by so much modern time at 1:12 PM on November 13, 2018

Best answer: Hello from Oregon. You live in Washington, so I'll refer you to your department of health's website and the information provided from my colleagues on your side of the river.

Trust your public servants who do this work as their day job. I know some of the air quality people at Department of Ecology, and they're both great to work with and great at what they do. It looks like you live in the Northwest Clean Air Agency's territory. Department of Ecology and the Northwest Clean Air Agency likely have public outreach offices and people you can talk to if you want to get real details on this, and out of professional courtesy, I would say you should talk to them and not to me (I do technical work on this kind of thing in Oregon).

But for some basic answers:

Smog and forest fire smoke are superficially similar, in that they consist of a lot of harmful gaseous pollutants and fine particulate matter (PM), and you don't want to be breathing any of that. But if you care about this sort of thing, the constituent chemical compounds of smog and forest fire smoke can be different. Forest fire smoke will be different depending on what kinds of trees are burning. Anthropogenic (human-source) pollutants are likely to contain more oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and sulfur oxides (SOx) and certain kinds of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that you won't see in a forest fire, though forest fires will have their own kinds of VOCs, and all of those will mean elevated ozone levels. I would say Beijing smog and west coast forest fire smoke are not very similar, but frankly, that's a distinction that only air quality scientists and public health specialists care about. From the perspective of people suffering from it, they're both varying degrees of bad and you want to breathe neither.

The previously mentioned california document on air respirators is correct - you want P100 or N95 respirators - but those only filter particulate; I've seen some respirators with an activated charcoal layer to help with the gaseous contaminants, but that only works so well. The best thing is to not expose yourself - get away from the smoke, or stay in a place with treated air.

Last summer my baby was born, and we hunkered down in the one room with a portable air conditioner, and I built a homemade air scrubber to go over the inlet - this consisted of a particulate matter filter, and activated charcoal and purafil to mitigate the gaseous components.

Use air conditioning. Any air conditioning is good, but the more you can filter an inlet to screen out particulate matter, the better. PM in the size fraction of 2.5 microns is what you have to worry about, so you ideally want a filter that can filter out by having a cut rate of say, 0.45 microns (filters out everything larger than 0.45 microns). Activated charcoal will help with VOCs and ozone, and those kinds of filter elements are sold commercially as well.

If you want more details, you can message me. But I do highly recommend you speak to your local agencies.
posted by Strudel at 9:36 PM on November 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Wonderful information and links to more! Thanks, everybody, and good luck to us all.
posted by kestralwing at 3:32 PM on November 14, 2018

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