What to know about smoke and your health

March 13, 2018

Officials advised residents who live near a Northeast Portland salvage yard to evacuate Monday night after air quality monitors recorded dangerous levels of pollution in areas. Children, seniors and people with lung and heart problems are most at risk in smoky conditions.

Here’s what people should know about the effects of smoke from man-made sources such as tires:

What are the health effects of the smoke from the auto salvage yard fire?
Gases and fine particles in smoke can irritate people’s eyes and respiratory system, and worsen chronic heart and lung diseases.
Black smoke from sources such as auto salvage yards or tires can have more of that fine particulate and toxic chemicals, including asbestos, aldehydes, acid gases, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, benzene, toluene, styrene, metals and dioxins. Smoke from burning tires or plastic material can include toxic chemicals of synthetic rubber compounds. Each tire contains about two gallons of petroleum products similar to heating oil.

Who are at greatest risk of negative health effects from the smoke?
Children, the elderly and people with heart and lung problems are at greatest risk.

Young children and infants breathe more times per minute than adults and take in more air volume relative to their body size, making them among the sensitive groups when air quality is poor.
People 65 and older and those with known heart and lung problems like asthma and emphysema are more sensitive to lung irritation from breathing in small particles. They may have cough, wheezing, trouble breathing, chest tightness, lightheadedness or unusual tiredness. It is especially important that anyone with these conditions stay inside and have their usual medications on hand.
Anyone with symptoms that are severe or don’t get better should contact their health care provider right away.

What can I do to protect my health?
Your priority should be to limit your exposure.

  • Pay attention to local air quality reports. Listen and watch for news or health warnings about smoke. Find out if your community provides reports about the Environmental Protection Agency's Air Quality Index (AQI). Also pay attention to public health messages about taking additional safety measures.
  • Refer to visibility guides if they are available. Not every community has a monitor that measures the amount of particles that are in the air. In the Western part of the United States, some communities have guidelines to help people estimate the Air Quality Index (AQI) based on how far they can see.
  • If you are advised to stay indoors, keep indoor air as clean as possible. Keep windows and doors closed. Run an air conditioner if you have one, but keep the fresh air intake closed and the filter clean to prevent outdoor smoke from getting inside. Running a high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter or an electro-static precipitator (ESP) can also help you keep your indoor air clean. If you do not have an air conditioner and it is too warm to stay inside with the windows closed, seek shelter elsewhere.
  • Do not add to indoor pollution. When smoke levels are high, do not use anything that burns, such as candles, fireplaces, or gas stoves. Do not vacuum, because vacuuming stirs up particles already inside your home. Do not smoke, because smoking puts even more pollution into the air.

Do masks help?
Do not rely on masks for protection. Paper "comfort" or "dust" masks commonly found at hardware stores are designed to trap large particles, such as sawdust. These masks will not protect your lungs from smoke. There are also specially designed air filters worn on the face called respirators. These must be fitted, tested and properly worn to protect against wildfire smoke. People who do not properly wear their respirator may gain a false sense of security. If you choose to wear a respirator, select an “N95” respirator, and make sure you find someone who has been trained to help you select the right size, test the seal and teach you how to use it. It may offer some protection if used correctly.

What about my garden?
It is always important to remember these simple steps to reduce exposure to toxic substances when gardening:

  • Do not eat soil or dirt.
  • Wash, soak or peal plants to avoid eating dust and soil particles.
  • Water plants near the bottom of the plants, to prevent soil from splashing up onto plants. Avoid overhead watering.
  • Take off shoes and wipe down pets to avoid tracking soil into your home.
  • Wash your hands.

Fruit from trees that are in bloom is not likely to be affected by the smoke. But always remember to wash fruit from trees in your yard or community gardens.

Remember to eat a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, from a variety of sources. Eating a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables protects the body from absorbing some substances and helps with many other chronic health conditions. While smoke from fires at such facilities can contain toxic chemicals from synthetic rubber compounds and other materials, at this time it is not known whether, or how much, of the particulate matter from the smoke has affected soil and gardens in the area. Plants will not necessarily absorb particles from the smoke, and it is unlikely that toxics will accumulate in plants in dangerous amounts.

For more information on maintaining clean air at home during smoke events, visit: http://www.oregon.gov/oha/PH/PREPAREDNESS/PREPARE/Documents/le8002.pdf