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Breathe easier with these tips for surviving wildfire smoke

Unhealthy air has prompted exasperated residents to search for relief from the smoke that is expected to hang in the valley for at least a month longer.

Many are staying indoors, while others are buying indoor filtration systems, wearing masks and sometimes leaving the area to get a break from the smoke.

“We can’t really do much outside, and stuff sneaks into your house, and it’s hard to get a filter that’s fine enough for your home,” said David Donnelly.

The 65-year-old Eagle Point resident was looking at air purifiers to clean out the fine particles that health officials have warned could cause long-term respiratory damage.

“We’ve had smoke for about a month now, and it looks like we’re going to have it for another six to eight weeks,” Donnelly said.

On Wednesday, the National Weather Service in Medford had recorded 21 days of unhealthy air this summer in the valley, plus an additional 10 days when air quality was in the moderate or unhealthy for sensitive groups range.

Meteorologist Charles Smith said it’s the most unhealthy days since air quality records have been kept, starting in 2000.

Another bad smoke year was 2017 with 15 unhealthy days, followed by 2015 with 12 and 2013 with nine.

Based on visibility records, this year also surpasses 1987, when fires choked the valley with bad air during that summer, he said.

With smoky skies becoming normal lately, residents are searching for methods to deal with smoke, from air purifiers to masks.

Masks

“Surgical masks and bandannas don’t filter the fine particles,” said Katherine Benenati, spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. “The most effective way to deal with it is to limit exposure.”

Benenati suggests staying indoors as much as possible. However, that is a problem for firefighters and others who work outdoors for a living.

Even the masks with an N95 or P100 rating can be problematic.

“The concern is they create a false sense of security,” Benenati said. “They’re really not reliable unless fit-tested by a professional.”

The N95 and P100 masks are not designed for children, though some local residents have found masks suitable for children online.

Home filters

If you stay indoors, the air is generally going to be better than outdoors, particularly if you have a good filter on your air-conditioning system. Some local stores have had a rush on these high-efficiency filters.

Health experts say residents should minimize opening and closing doors to prevent smoky air from getting inside. Leaving doors to garages open also can allow bad air into houses.

Make sure the filter in your house is clean and has a MERV rating of 9 to 12, though you should check your system to make sure it can handle the more restrictive filter.

According to the California Air Resources Board, higher-efficiency filters should cost in the $10 to $20 range.

However, many of these filters don’t remove all the extremely fine particles that can reach deep into lungs.

As a result, local residents such as Donnelly have been snapping up plug-in HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) purifiers that trap extremely fine particles in wildfire smoke that are 2.5 microns in size (the diameter of a human hair averages about 75 microns).

According to the California Air Resources Board website, high-efficiency filters in houses can reduce fine particles by 48 percent. Stand-alone purifiers in conjunction with central air resulted in a 51 percent reduction in fine particles.

The Resources Board noted that asthma sufferers woke less frequently when they had air purifiers in their bedrooms, particularly when the door was closed.

Many newer vehicles also have cabin filters, and some manufacturers such as Bosch offer HEPA filter replacements for cars, though you should check with your dealer to make sure they aren’t too restrictive.

Tanya Phillips, health promotion manager for Jackson County Public Health, said people should try to create an environment where they get cleaner air.

She said many businesses and gyms also have better filtration systems.

“I’m going to assume it’s much better,” she said. “It’s pretty safe to say it’s cleaner.”

Phillips said a county health officer also bought a plug-in HEPA filter. These stand-alone units are widely available, costing anywhere from $80 to $600 at local stores.

Local hospitals haven’t seen a dramatic increase in emergency room or urgent care visits because of the smoke.

“Unlike past seasons, we have not seen a high influx of respiratory cases coming into the emergency department,” said Cory Bergey, director of operations in the Providence Medford Medical Center’s emergency department, via text. “I theorize it’s likely due to the education and the experience of our community with wildfires.”

Bergey stated that more people appear to be wearing masks and avoiding outdoor activities. Also, she said, many outdoor community events have been postponed, canceled or moved to indoor locations.

Lauren Van Sickle, spokeswoman for Asante Health System, said the hospitals in Ashland, Medford and Grants Pass haven’t seen a big increase in respiratory complaints, though she’s heard some people have cold-like symptoms, including a stuffy head or scratchy throat.

“People are getting smart or getting out of town,” she said. “They are taking the precautions for unhealthy air very seriously.”

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him @reporterdm.


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