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Where There Is Fire, There is Smoke: Safeguarding Your Indoor Air Quality

wildfire smoke indoor air quality

According to weather experts, 2017 was not supposed to be a "wildfire year" for Canada.

But as it turned out, when you mix climate change leading to record-setting high temperatures, lightening strikes and dry air, this creates "perfect storm-like" conditions for wildfires to develop.

To further worsen the situation, many Western areas throughout North America, including both Canada and the United States, are burning, and the smoke that the combined wildfires are producing can be seen from space. As the smoke intensifies, airborne toxins spread farther and across the continent, affecting those who live hundreds or thousands of miles from the source.

With more than 500 wildfires reported just in British Columbia thus far, it is now clear this is one of the worst seasons for wildfires in recent history. In this article, we outline how to ensure your indoor air quality remains safe and healthy for you and your family during this dangerous time!

What Is In Airborne Smoke?

Smoke doesn't seem that threatening visually. It turns the air white or grey and often carries dust and fine debris.

Unfortunately, smoke and the debris it produces represent a toxic blend of airborne gases and particulate matter, including some of the deadliest known to science today.

The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) published the results of a study in Critical Reviews in Toxicology that named the major toxins present in airborne smoke as follows:

  • Carbon monoxide

  • Hydrogen cyanide

  • Nitrogen

  • Halogens (inorganic chemical acids)

  • Ethanol

To further complicate matters, fire is a voracious consumer of oxygen, which leaves the resulting air very oxygen-poor. Instead of breathing in oxygen, you are now breathing in the toxic chemicals listed here plus copious quantities of carbon dioxide, which further depletes your body's oxygen reserves.

The combination of elevated smoke/fire-related airborne toxins plus the resultant oxygen depletion can reach fatal levels 10 percent faster than the presence of either danger on its own.

Health Dangers of Airborne Smoke

According to Air Now, a partnership between agencies throughout North America, smoke is a potent source of air pollution. While it may smell good when coming from your holiday fireplace or someone’s campfire outside, your lungs and heart are not enjoying it nearly as much as the rest of you.

And when the smoke is coming from what is now said to be one of the largest continuously burning banks of wildfires in recent history, the potential health impacts can range from mild to catastrophic.

Proximity and pre-existing health conditions combine to indicate who bears the greatest health risk from breathing in smoke-filled air.

If you or a loved one has any of these health conditions, it is critically important to ensure you have a continuous smoke-free source of indoor air to breathe:

  • Heart condition

  • Lung condition

  • Asthma

  • Allergies

  • Diabetes

  • Trying to conceive or currently pregnant

Also, very young and elderly individuals are more at-risk of experiencing more serious side effects from breathing in smoke-filled air.

The most commonly reported side effects arising from breathing in smoke-filled air include:

  • Respiratory symptoms: watering or itching eyes, runny or stuffy nose, sore throat, coughing, wheezing, phlegm, breathing issues, increased asthma attacks.

  • Cardiovascular symptoms: heart palpitations, chest pain or discomfort, fatigue, inability to breathe deeply.

How to Clean Your Indoor Air

The best time to clean your indoor air is before wildfire season even arrives. This preventative step ensures the least health impact from either airborne smoke-related toxins or oxygen depletion or both.

Happily, indoor air quality (IAQ) technology has made a giant leap forward in recent years, with the result that you have more efficient and more affordable IAQ options to choose from than at any other time in history.

As well, any technology you choose to implement will protect you not just during wildfire season, but year-round.

Here is a list of the major IAQ aids we recommend for our clients:

1. Heat Recovery Ventilator  or Energy Recovery Ventilator

Both HRV and ERV systems ensure that fresh incoming air and stale outgoing air do not meet and mix. Both systems also filter out airborne toxins, boost HVAC and furnace efficiency, and balance humidity in your indoor air systems.

ERVs are generally recommended for warmer and more humid climates, while HRVs work well in more temperate climates with lower humidity.

2. HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filtration system

The HEPA filtration system is currently the "gold standard" for indoor air filtration. HEPA filters are often installed in hospital and laboratory settings, but today's HEPA options include residential filters as well. HEPA filters can filter out airborne particulate matter as small as 0.3 microns (the width of a single human hair!).

In addition to using HEPA-rated filters with your existing HVAC unit (if rated at a MERV 16+), you can retrofit any HVAC system with a HEPA whole-house filtration system that filters the air before it enters your ducts.

You can also purchase HEPA-rated vacuum cleaners for use on your floors and carpeting.

3. MERV (Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value) furnace filters

A MERV-rated furnace filter of 16 or higher is the equivalent grade of a residential HEPA filter and can filter out even very tiny toxic particles in your indoor air.

4. Dehumidifiers and humidifiers

The amount of indoor air humidity can exacerbate or reduce the potential health impact of toxic airborne chemicals, gases, and particulate matter.

The ideal range is 30 to 50 percent humidity, which may mean using a combination of humidification and dehumidification to regulate your indoor air humidity levels.

5. Portable air filters

For homes that are lacking a central duct system, portable air filters with a high CADR (central air delivery rate) rating can achieve a similar effect as the other aids listed here.

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