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Tiny Particles in Wildfire Smoke Pose Health Risks

National Interagency Fire Center/Flickr

Wildfires are affecting air quality across the West, bringing hidden dangers in smoke that can harm people's health.

The Boise-based National Interagency Fire Center already has moved the country into the highest fire-preparedness status, level five.

Dr. Luke Montrose, environmental toxicologist and assistant professor of Community and Environmental Health at Boise State University, said dangerous particulate matter in wildfire smoke, known as PM 2.5, is small enough to get past the body's normal line of defense and deep into the lungs.

"These particles are really small," Montrose explained. "And you can think of them as vehicles that carry chemicals into our lungs."

Montrose cautioned repeated and chronic exposure to harmful particles reduces the ability of cells known as macrophages to clean up the lungs and activate the immune system's responses. Idaho currently has the highest number of active fires in the U.S. at 23.

Montrose advised the safest place for people facing bad air quality from blazes is in their homes.

"It is a really difficult thing to ask people to stay inside after we've been inside for so long with the COVID-19 pandemic, but unfortunately people are going to have to take an inventory of themselves," Montrose stated. "Who are they? Are they in a susceptible or vulnerable population when it comes to wildfire smoke exposure?"

Montrose noted air-purification units with HEPA filters can strain out harmful particles. But the filters have been hard to come by after last year's devastating wildfire season, so he suggested people can look up do-it-yourself tricks online for creating their own purification units.

Montrose recommended people watch the air quality in their area, and even help monitor it. While there are limitations to low-cost air-monitoring technology, he added the robust network captured on websites such as Purple Air provides insightful data.

"It's pretty fascinating to watch how those monitors change as the air quality or even the weather changes," Montrose remarked.