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It is as seemingly inevitable as the wildfires that burn hotter and longer each summer: Smoke from distant (or, in some cases, nearby) fires floats into the mid-valley and can linger for days or weeks.

Weather forecasters say they expect areas of smoke in the mid-valley through at least Tuesday. This is despite the fact that the mid-valley does not (at least not yet) have any major wildfires burning in the area. But smoke from fires in central or southern Oregon can make its way here.

Smoke from wildfires contains carbon monoxide and particulate matter that, over the long run, can be hazardous to your health. The particulate matter is a particular concern; wildfire smoke contains dangerously small particles known as PM2.5, which can get into the lungs and bloodstream. The good news here is that, in general, the health risks from short-term exposure to wildfire smoke are low, according to a 2016 paper on smoke the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency prepared for local health officials. (In this case, "short-term" was defined as exposure over a few days or even weeks.)

The same paper from the EPA (it's attached to the online version of this editorial) noted that the number of wildfires — and the smoke they create — is increasing: "Past practices of extinguishing every fire combined with impacts related to climate change are leading to larger, more intense, more frequent wildfires that threaten life, safety, and property." (It's possible this could be the only remaining reference to climate change anywhere on the EPA's website.)

The intense fire seasons the West has suffered through the past few years appear to have triggered renewed scientific interest in studying the health effects of exposure to smoke.

An associate professor at Colorado State University, Jeffrey Pierce, made news late last year when he and colleagues suggested that wildfire smoke (in particular, those PM2.5 particles) contribute to 5,000 to 25,000 deaths in the United States each year. The Washington Post quoted Pierce as saying that the number could triple by 2100 as wildfires increase. In fact, he said, smoke from wildfires likely would become the largest source of particulate pollution in the United States as other sources of air pollution diminish. (Pierce emphasized that his findings were preliminary and needed to be replicated by other scientists.)

The death toll from wildfire smoke doesn't tell the entire story, said Katelyn O’Dell, a researcher at Colorado State who works with Pierce. “Things like kids missing school, people missing work, people having asthma attacks would affect a larger part of the population, so the impact of smoke exposure is probably a lot greater than we’re even seeing,” O’Dell said at a meeting in December of the American Geophysical Union, where she and Pierce presented their work.

You can take steps to limit your exposure to smoke: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests vulnerable populations such as people with heart and lung diseases, the elderly and young children remain indoors and keep windows and doors closed. Run an air conditioner, the CDC suggests, but keep the fresh-air intake closed and the filter clean to prevent outdoor smoke from getting inside. Wash sheets and pillowcases more frequently.

Air purifiers can be effective at cleaning the air of particulate, but make sure that your model is HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Arrestance) certified; it will usually be listed as "true HEPA." 

The bad news is that those paper masks people sometimes wear during smoky days are not particularly useful at blocking out small particulates. In order to offer adequate protection from smoke particles, look for a mask that’s rated by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health as N95 or P100. 

The increase in wildfire smoke has public policy implications as well: to help prevent fires from burning hotter and longer, we need to thin our public forests of the fuel that allows fires to burn with increasing intensity and pair that with a smart regimen of controlled burns. Enduring a little smoke from time to time from these controlled burns could help limit the smoky sieges that sometimes stretch out for weeks. (mm)


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