Is It Safe to Walk Outside During Wildfire Season?
Wildfire smoke from Canada has been blanketing much of the northern United States. Many people rely on a daily walk to keep their minds and bodies in shape, but is it still safe to get our steps in outdoors? According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there are many factors at play when evaluating whether or not you should spend time outdoors when the air quality is bad. In New York City and other places affected by the Canadian wildfires, air pollution levels are extremely high and classified as “very unhealthy.” So, what can happen to your body if you take a walk when the air quality is bad?
Who Should Avoid Time Outdoors?
Individuals with respiratory issues such as asthma, allergies, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD); cardiovascular conditions; weakened immune systems; as well as older adults, pregnant women, and young children should avoid time outdoors when the air quality is bad. “In the short-term, if you're a healthy adult, you may experience a sore throat and itchy eyes due to irritation. If you fall into one of the sensitive groups, you may experience coughing, wheezing, difficulty breathing, and in severe cases, serious heart problems.”
How Does Poor Air Quality Affect Our Lungs?
Most of us are breathing in irritants, germs, allergens, and potentially toxic substances every day—especially if we live in an urban community—but the added smoke from wildfires can really take it up a notch and have a greater effect on our lungs. “The nose is the window to the lungs,” she says. “Exposure to wildfires and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can wreak havoc on the delicate tissues of the nose, sinuses, and particularly the lungs.” In the short term, breathing in these airborne particles may manifest as allergies, asthma, and sinus problems. In the long term, “these irritants can cause serious lung conditions and, in some cases, even cancer.”
What Should You Do If You Decide to Take a Walk?
If you decide to take a walk, it's best to keep it short and stick to walking during the daytime. “Particulate concentrations are generally worse at night,” Michael Koehle, MD, PhD, and director of the Environmental Physiology Laboratory at the University of British Columbia, told The Washington Post. He explained that smoke settles closer to the ground as the day goes on and doesn't begin to lift until after sunrise the next day. Also, if you live in a place that's affected by the wildfires, it is essential to know that cloth masks and surgical masks are not especially effective. “A properly-fitted N95 is the only type of mask that can meaningfully reduce the amount of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) that you inhale,” says researcher and air quality expert Jie Zhao, PhD.
In conclusion, it's best to avoid or limit time outdoors when the air quality is as poor as it is during the wildfire season, especially if you belong to a sensitive group. If you're determined to get outside, be mindful of the air quality, wear an N95 mask, and keep the walk short. Bad air quality is no joke, and it can cause several lung conditions in the long term.
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