May 4-8 is the 14th annual Air Quality Awareness Week. This year’s theme is “Better Air, Better Health.” Today, we’ll talk about where air pollution comes from and how you can protect yourself.
What causes air pollution?
Air pollution refers to the release of pollutants in the air that can be detrimental to your health. That can be toxic gases like sulfur dioxide or nitrogen oxides from vehicles or industry, or just blowing dust, or smoke from fires. No matter the source, protecting air quality is important to protecting your health.
Particle pollution, or particulate matter (PM), is a mixture of tiny solids or liquid droplets that includes smoke, soot, dirt, and dust floating in the air. When inhaled, these tiny particles can harm your health.
The main sources of PM are from wood stoves, outdoor burning, blowing dust, wildfires, and vehicle and industry emissions. Ecology and local clean air agencies monitor PM to make sure it doesn’t reach harmful levels and advise the public to take precautions when they do. We're working to reduce particulate matter levels by recommending cleaner wood stoves, and encouraging alternatives to burning.
Let’s look in more detail at two of the biggest sources of particulate pollution:
Wildfires and outdoor burning
It’s almost wildfire season in the Pacific Northwest and many people are outside cleaning up their yards. Ecology and most local clean air agencies are asking people not to burn during the current health crisis - both to protect your neighbors and to reduce the burden on your local first responders.
Even after the current crisis, before you burn anything, check for burn bans in your area. If you must burn, be sure it is legal in your area and use proper safety precautions. Be considerate that while smoke from fires may not seem to harm you, breathing in particulate matter and harmful gases could seriously harm your neighbor. Consider composting, bagging, or chipping your yard waste instead.
To monitor the air quality in your area, check the Air Quality Index on the wasmoke.blogspot.com website. Be aware of wildfire evacuation orders and follow your local jurisdiction guidelines.
Central and Eastern Washington are prone to dust storms spring through fall, but these storms can happen at any time of the year. Much of this blowing dust occurs due to agriculture and construction industries. We're working with agricultural producers to use less invasive tilling methods and other best management practices. To receive dust storm alerts, sign up for the National Weather Service notification system and for additional information, sign up for our email list or follow us on Facebook or Twitter.
In Washington, transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, and is also the largest source of toxic air pollution like carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides. Right now, transportation emissions are down in many parts of the state because people are doing the right thing and staying home.
Since Governor Jay Inslee issued the #StayHomeStayHealthy order on March 23, the Seattle area has seen a significant reduction in carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides. Of course, this is not how we want to improve air quality. As people get back on the roads in the coming weeks and months, vehicle emissions can be kept low by carpooling, riding bikes, taking the bus, or continuing to telecommute.
Protecting your health
If you, or someone you know, are exposed to smoke or unhealthy levels of air pollution, monitor the symptoms closely, which might include:
- Eye, nose, and throat irritation
- Shortness of breath, asthma attack, or lung irritation
- Watery or dry eyes
- Persistent cough, phlegm, wheezing, scratchy throat, or irritated sinuses
- Irregular heartbeat, chest pain, or fatigue
- Nonfatal and fatal heart attacks
Even healthy people can be affected by air pollution, but people in sensitive groups are particularly vulnerable to poor air quality conditions. Sensitive groups include:
- Elderly people
- Pregnant women
- Those with cardiovascular diseases
- People with respiratory illnesses
- People with other underlying health conditions
If you are in the sensitive group category and your symptoms are extreme, call your doctor immediately and consider leaving the area.
If you are in overall good health the following steps may help relieve your symptoms:
- For itchy eyes, you can use over the counter artificial tear drops
- For a scratchy throat, drink plenty of water and run a humidifier
- For a headache, take an over the counter pain reliever
- Wear an N95 mask if you are outdoors
- Drink plenty of water
- Use a HEPA filter
- Make your own clean air fan
- Limit your time spent outdoors