Wildfire smoke a growing concern as locals breathe in 'moderate'-quality air for weeks

Wildfire smoke can expose individuals to dangerous levels of fine particulate matter, which can lodge itself in our lungs and even into our bloodstream. Locals are becoming familiarized with the onslaught of threats brought on by wildfire smoke.

On Monday, Kenmore Middle School became one of the latest schools to cancel outdoor after-school activities due to air quality concerns. That meant cross-country, soccer and tennis couldn’t take place as normally scheduled.

Late in September, the Northshore School District put out a note to families noting when and why they cancel outdoor activities, citing Department of Health guidance. Athletic practices and competitions are canceled when local air quality index (AQI) levels exceed 100.

While levels were above 100 on Monday, smaller children were a few minutes away practicing youth soccer on Monday afternoon.

Patrick Gaffney, a grandfather that flew in to visit family, was among the spectators. He noted that the haze and smoke was noticeable when he arrived into town, and that his family had already planned around the smoke this week.

"We come here frequently for our grandchildren," said Gaffney. "We’ve been out here a number of years with bad smoke."

Wildfire smoke exposure for longer periods of time

During extreme events, warnings go out telling people to avoid getting outdoor. However, less intense days like those that we’ve experienced this week can build up, creating a problem with the air quality we are in week to week, month to month.

In Puget Sound, we have avoided some of the worst-case scenario days we saw in 2020. However, some communities are seeing a steady stream of ‘moderate’ and ‘unhealthy for sensitive group’ days.

According to Phil Swartzendruber, an air specialist with Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, exposure to wildfire smoke for a prolonged period can add up over time. For those living near wildfires that are burning for weeks at a time, there may be concerns about what individuals breathe in over the course of the year.

Just like there are standards that set off alarms for individual days, the federal government has standards for annual exposure – though, that math is harder to track for individual families.

"It’s going to have the same health risks and health concerns for the short-term standard, but little doses for the year can add up," explained Swartzendruber. "Maybe if you’re a lot closer to a fire and you’re getting weeks and weeks and weeks of it, you want to consider getting some type of filtration. Try to keep your exposure down low."

The EPA has found a slew of health effects linked to short-term wildfire exposure. The risks can be minor, like coughing and difficulty breathing.

It can also lead to increased risk of emergency room visits, heart failure, heart attack or even stroke.

A bigger concern is that studies are still being looked at to determine the long-term exposure across multiple seasons. Though, the EPA lists ‘reduced lung function’ as a possible impact of multiple days or weeks of exposure, something that has been tracked in studies of wildland firefighters.

Wildfire smoke erasing clean air progress

Researchers at Stanford have found that there’s a growing number of people being exposed to wildfire smoke in the U.S.

The data, published in Environmental Science & Technology, warns that increasing wildfire smoke could undo decades of progress from the Clean Air Act. The study warns that people in the Western U.S. are routinely being exposed to levels of pollution that carry health risks.

"We found that people are being exposed to more days with wildfire smoke and more extreme days with high levels of fine particulate matter from smoke," Dr. Marissa Childs, the lead study author said in a news release.

Childs warned that unlike other pollutants, wildfire smoke is considered an "exceptional event" under current law – meaning the pollution people are being exposed to isn’t regulated.

You can read more about wildfire concerns raised in the recent research based out of Stanford, here.