The air we breathe: from COVID-19 to smoke

In Oregon, just as we began making progress understanding and implementing the various protections important to prevent the spread of COVID-19 came wildland fires. Oregonians are devastated by the burning of precious forests, land, homes and communities. The impact on individuals, families and communities is tremendous, including the loss of life and property, evacuations and exposure to dangerous levels of smoke. The pressures put on essential outdoor workers has been heightened.

As the smoke from our fires moves across the country and beyond, none of us is likely to see clear blue skies for awhile. What things can we do to reduce our health impact now? While there is so much we can’t do in this moment, below are a few tips and links to minimize exposure to smoke at work and at home.

Tips for protecting breathing spaces

  1. Homes and Communities
    Protect vulnerable people from smoke exposure as much as possible. Keep indoor air as clean as possible. Turn off any furnace or exhaust venting system that brings in outdoor air. Air conditioning systems can be used in recirculated, filtered mode as long as outside fresh air intakes are closed. Block door and window cracks with wet towels, plastic, or other materials. Use indoor filtered air cleaners or create your own. Stay indoor as much as possible when air quality index is poor (AQI numbers are high). Use particulate filter masks if you have them for essential outdoor activities. More resources:

  2. Commercial buildings
    Eliminate door and other openings as much as feasible. Ensure your building engineer/maintenance team have altered HVAC accordingly. This may be challenging as advice to reduce COVID-19 exposure risk has been to increase outdoor air flow, so that decisions will need to be made as to which is most critical at which time. Another resource:

  3. Employers
    Reduce your employees’ exposure to outdoor air if feasible and work can be done indoors. Encourage telecommuting when possible as it alleviates the need for commuting. More resources:

  4. Outdoor employees
    Working in smoky conditions is a significant issue and can create adverse health symptoms. If possible, delay work or strenuous work and/or shorten outdoor shifts. Some organizations have been able to purchase and provide N-95 and Kn-95 air purifying respirators and masks for workers in agriculture and construction. Ensure you provide training on proper use. Breathing through respirators can be taxing to some individuals or when worn during strenuous work. More resources:

As we move through this emergency stage of response, relocations and smoky skies, it will be important to plan for the impact of future fires by updating your emergency plans and written operations plans. Do it now so to be better prepared in the future.

Now, about the novel coronavirus? Next time we’ll talk about ventilation tips to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19. In the meantime, stay safe. Our thoughts are with all Oregonians and our neighbors to north and south at this difficult time.

Ways to Help During Oregon Wildfires.