Smoky Mountains

These are not the Smoky Mountains, but they are the smoky mountains.

I wish I could really clear the air of all this smoke we’ve been breathing lately. But at least we can clear up some confusion about where it’s coming from, how it’s measured, and what those measurements mean.

When the smoke begins to filter in, people often ask, “Where’s the fire?” If only it were that simple. If the smoke came from just one fire, the smoke would stop when that fire was put out. The sad truth is that this is the smoke of dozens of fires burning throughout the West, near and far. It all mixes together in the atmosphere like food coloring in a glass of water, then flows over broad areas of the continent. Last week, the smoke from our Western fires reached the east coast and filled the skies out over the Atlantic Ocean.

But what is smoke? Just as a rain cloud is really a collection of tiny water particles, a smoke cloud is a collection of tiny, largely solid particles, particularly carbon, tars, oil, and ash. But hundreds of other things might be lurking in there, too, depending on what’s burning.

If you’ve ever been caught in a cloud of dust kicked up from a dirt road or plowed field, you know how uncomfortable that can be. Dust and sand are particles too, but bigger ones than in smoke. Larger particles might irritate your eyes more, but they’re easier to stop. Just the weave of a bandanna over your face will help a lot. Not so for smoke-sized particles; they get right through a bandanna. After that, they are small enough to get way down into your lungs. Some even make it into your blood from there, sneaking a ride along with the oxygen. That’s where the health concerns of smoke begin.

The EPA has developed an Air Quality Index for smoke-sized particles and relates that to their impact on your health and what you can do about it. But be aware that some very knowledgeable medical professionals take exception to the AQI. With good evidence and documentation, they claim that smoke is more dangerous to your health than the EPA’s AQI would have you believe. For example, they point to studies that show a correlation between smoke and increased heart attacks and strokes.

We don’t have a choice of whether to breathe or not, and even on smoky days, many of us don’t have the luxury of being able to avoid doing heavy outdoor work. (Especially if the boss is around.) So what can be done? Your trusty N-95 mask will offer some protection from smoke. It may be a pain to wear, but if your nurse can get used to wearing it for a full 12-hour shift, maybe you can too. The 95 means they keep out 95% of particles 30 microns in size. Most smoke particles are a little smaller than that, but it’s better than nothing. (By the way, a micron is pretty small, a millionth of a meter. Your hair is probably about 70 microns thick. Mine used to be.)

To protect themselves as they breathe indoors, some have installed HEPA filter air purifiers. (Short for High Efficiency Particulate Air filter.) When properly installed, they can theoretically do a better job than an N-95 mask, removing 99.7% of particles 30 microns in size. But they ain’t cheap, so do your research into price and efficiency before going this route.

Maybe the best solution to wildfire smoke air pollution is to reduce the number of wildfires in the first place. But if you want to start an argument, just ask people the best way to do that. Is it by allowing more clear-cutting of forests to remove fuel? Is it by investing more in firefighting crews and technology to nip fires in the bud? Is it by educating the public the way Smoky Bear does? Is it by allowing professional loggers to manage the forests instead of government agencies? This isn’t the place to argue all that, but it’s something to think about.