New Air Quality Issues Brought on by Wildfires

We need to get our collective act together.

by Eric Holdeman / May 6, 2019

Here in the western United States, wildfire smoke has become a significant public health concern. Just think about all the people who have compromised breathing that stems from lung disease, youth or old age. Conditions were so bad in 2018 that here in the Puget Sound, we had the worst air quality of anywhere in the world, and it was bad for all living beings. 

Recently I attended one of the Seattle Office of Emergency Management (OEM) monthly sessions and there was a short briefing on the issue of air quality and wildfire smoke. You can read my brief notes below, but I'd like to emphasize that we collectively need to get ahead of this issue. All governments, at all levels need to have their public health officials coordinating with one another on what the message should be so there is not one agency contradicting another in their messaging. All that does is lead to confusion and then people go on the Internet to find solutions that may not be correct or helpful, e.g., the anti-vaccination messages that already abound. 

Contact your own public health agency and find out what is being done and I'd look to including such messaging in your disaster preparedness program. People want good, relevant information about hazards, and this can lead to a good alliance with our health partners.

New air quality issues brought on by wildfires

Air quality myths

  • If you wear the right kind of mask, you’re fine — there are no masks for kids, facial hair, and the right mask/filter
  • In air quality emergencies, people should stay home — maybe it might be better to be at work
  • As long as your building has air conditioning, you’re fine, perhaps not — filters not helping, doors opening frequently

Challenges

  • Infrastructure not designed for this hazard
  • Current emergency policies not designed for this
  • No easy, one-size-fits-all response — especially with a dispersed workforce
  • Multiple government entities involved — city, county, state and federal
  • Unpredictable in start/end and intensity — weather and fire
  • Mass use of masks hard to proscribe based on existing guidelines.

What is needed

  • Consistent public messaging across jurisdictions
  • Early engagement with business and building owners
  • City policy updates
  • City infrastructure updates
  • City employee training and information

Active planning for these types of issues

  • Coordination with public health
  • Business coordination
  • Update city’s inclement weather policy
  • OSHA training
  • Add new filtration systems to buildings, buildings used as cooling centers
  • Mapping existing air-conditioned locations, adding smoke and heat checklist to plans
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