Smoke/ash protection tips from one super sick person in WA who is trying her best.
EDIT FOR 2020: I wrote this in 2018, before COVID-19 caused mask & air purification product shortages. Unfortunately that means some of these strategies I suggest will not be possible right now, but I hope there is still advice that will help you reduce your exposure and plan for next year. This will not be the last year we face the problem of severe smoke pollution. Additionally, smoke exposure is incredibly taxing on your body and immune system. Please protect yourself as best you are able, and ask for help if you need it. The pandemic is still raging, and fire season increases our vulnerability.
Hey friends, I’m writing from Seattle, WA, where the air quality is bad and still going downhill because of all the fires raging in WA, OR, and CA. You are probably reading this because you, too, are in an area that just won’t stop catching fire, and the smoke/ash is starting to get to you in a bad way.
Below are tips I have developed from a couple years having really bad reactions to smoke/ash during fire season. I am an extremely sensitive, high-risk case because of preexisting health conditions, but the air is so bad at this point that it is likely bothering you even if you are generally healthy.
Before we dive in: I AM NOT A DOCTOR. IF YOU’RE WORRIED ABOUT WHETHER TRYING SOMETHING IS SAFE FOR YOU, CALL YOUR DOCTOR AND ASK.
My advice all comes from internet research and trial and error over a couple years surviving fire season as a high-risk person. You may want to go over what the CDC says before you read my tips.
Disclaimers out of the way — let’s get to the tips.
— — — — — WATCH YOUR AIR QUALITY
I use an app called AirVisual, and I recommend everyone download it if you can. There are other apps out there, but it’s the one I trust.
— — — — — PROTECT YOUR FACE & AIRWAYS
- If you just need to get to a car and back, or duck outside really fast, a wet rag over your mouth and nose will help protect your airways a little (but won’t help your eyes, unfortunately.)
- Cloth masks. I recommend Vogmask brand, but there are other options. Vogmask is on Amazon with one-day shipping if you need them fast. They are reusable and last for months of daily wear, or years of occasional emergency wear, which is why I always rec them first.
EDIT FOR 2020: Vogmasks are currently difficult to get, but multi-layer cloth masks commonly used for COVID-19 protection will protect you from larger smoke/ash particles at least. Remember, if you do have a Vogmask or other brand of vented N95 cloth mask, LAYER ANOTHER MASK ON TOP to ensure you are protecting others around you from COVID-19.
- Disposable paper masks. These are cheaper and usually available at hardware stores because people use them for painting/sanding/etc. The important thing to look for is an ALL-AROUND SEAL, so no air is coming except through the filter, and it should be labeled a “particulate respirator”, include the word “NIOSH” somewhere, and either “N95” or “P100” printed on it. This is IMPORTANT because it tells you it will filter the appropriate size particles to keep out the majority of ash.
- Half-face respirators. I trust the brand 3M. I own multiples because I have to wear them 24/7 when fires are like this. If you are extremely sensitive, GET A RESPIRATOR. I know they look scary and apocalyptic but they are far more reliably airtight than a paper or cloth mask. They’re fairly easy to find — you can get them at hardware stores and some department stores. You buy filters separately and attach them, so follow the same instructions as with the disposable paper masks. Filters should be N95 or P100, and if they say they protect from gases/vapors, EVEN BETTER.
- Goggles can help save your eyes from irritation. Anything from swim goggles to protective goggles from the hardware store that are flush with the skin all the way around the eyes.
Important notes: None of these solutions other than a heavy duty full-face respirator mask will save both your airways and eyes from toxic gas/vapors that come with fire, and I don’t have enough experience with them to confidently speak to that. This list of protective devices is mostly about cutting down inhalation as much as possible, not about completely comprehensive fixes.
EDIT FROM 2020: I now have a full-face respirator mask and heartily recommend them, although they are pricey. If you are very sensitive and worried about the coming years, I recommend investing if possible.
Also, if you have difficulty breathing even on an average day because of asthma or a lung disease etc, I recommend the 3M respirators OR researching an electric filtration mask that feeds oxygen directly to you, because they do not require extra effort to breathe while you use them. With paper and cloth masks, there will be added resistance to taking a breath and that likely isn’t ideal for you.
— — — — — CONTROL YOUR ENVIRONMENT
- I have HEPA air filters running in my house in every single room right now, at their highest setting. I recommend at least having one in the area you sleep, if not every room. A great budget pick is the Germ Guardian AC4100, my $$$ holy grail is the Austin Air Junior.
- Tape off windows, either covering all cracks & edges directly with something like painter’s tape, sheets of cling wrap or cellophane taped together, or an insulation kit like Duck’s shrink wrap plastic covers.
- Wipe surfaces daily if possible to prevent ash buildup. Change your sheets every day or every other day if you are able. This all helps avoid ash particles ruining stuff and puffing up into your face every time you sit down or go to sleep etc. Do not vacuum rugs or furniture if possible — doing so can throw settled particles back up in the air you are breathing. Give your home a good vacuum after the smoke has passed.
- Use a humidifier to get moisture into the air — it “cleans” by weighing down particles in the air. Even something as small/cheap as a diffuser will help (essential oils not required), or boiling down a pot of water on the stove.
- I have heard recommendations not to run your clothes dryer because the negative pressure will bring smoke into your house or cause your clothing to smell like ash. I’ve not tested this, but it is worth consideration especially if you are sensitive.
- If you’re extremely sensitive or smoke is at hazardous levels, consider creating a “clean room” and staying in it for the majority of your home time. This helps cut down on the rest of the ash-management housework too, because you can focus on your “clean room” and once the ash dies down and air quality returns to normal, you can clean the rest of the house all in one go.
(My clean room right now is my bedroom, it has my Austin Air Junior running, my windows are taped off with plastic, humidifier running, a clean floor and a clean bed, lots of water, meds, and snacks stashed next to it, and my 2 most comfortable respirators available to switch between. In this room I can take short breaks from wearing masks, which makes it easier for me to eat and drink.)
— — — — — HYGIENE CAN HELP
- Shower. Every day if you are able. If it’s really bad or you have very low energy, take a shower or sink bath at least after every time you leave the house.
- Regularly wipe off any skin, especially on your face, that is exposed to the air with water or a baby wipe or whatever works for you. If you are very sensitive, consider a barrier method — in the past when I’ve had to go out in smoke I’ve coated my exposed skin with coconut oil to keep ash from sticking directly to me and causing hives. This strategy is on the extreme side, but I have a severe mast disease.
If you’re able to take the time, slap on a face mask and just try to nap your way through fire season. Jokes aside, your eyes will appreciate being closed because it protects them from stuff in the air, and your body will be better able to fight off reactions to ash/smoke if you let it rest.
— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —
I hope something here helps you. Best of luck!