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Secondhand Smoke Beyond Tobacco

Last summer, the Canadian wildfire smoke was a catalyst for the most air quality advisories Wisconsin had seen in more than a decade. In June, the haze was so thick Wisconsin issued the first “very unhealthy” air advisory in history.

Canada’s worst wildfire season in 2023 made for challenging summer in the Midwest. This year, a familiar haze returns to Wisconsin skies as much of our state finds itself under an air quality advisory due to smoke drifting from Canadian wildfires. Ongoing drought conditions are only making fires worse, raising concerns for air quality in coming months.

When people think of the dangers of secondhand smoke, they may only consider the issue stemming from tobacco. However, some of the most toxic fumes come from wildfire smoke.

Air quality levels are measured by the Environmental Protection Agency’s air quality index (AQI), ranging from 0-500. A higher number indicates a higher level of pollution in that area. Although levels under 100 are considered generally safe, spending the day outside with an AQI of 20 is the equivalent to smoking one cigarette daily. When the wildfires were at their worst in June 2023, many Wisconsin counties had levels over 100 for the entire month.

Wildfire smoke is dangerous not only because these particles are harmful to ingest, but because the particles are so small they are able to travel deep into your lungs and even into your bloodstream causing a wide array of health issues, including:

  • Irritation and Inflammation of the lungs, eyes, nose, and throat
  • General fatigue, headaches, and weakness
  • Increased susceptibility to respiratory infections
  • Increased risk of developing cancer
  • During pregnancy, excessive exposure can lead to premature births and low birth weight

With the serious health risks of secondhand wildfire smoke, it’s important to be educated on the best ways to stay protected from bad air quality. Here’s what you can do when the air quality is compromised:

  • Stay Informed: It’s important to stay informed on the latest air quality trends so you are aware of data and forecasts in your area.
  • Get an Air Purifier: Investing in a quality air purifier with a HEPA filter will help remove harmful particles from the air in your home.
  • Keep Windows and Doors Closed: Ensure that your home is sealed to prevent the polluted outside air from entering.
  • Check with Your Doctor: Those with preexisting medical conditions like asthma or COPD should create a plan with the help of a healthcare professional to navigate days with bad air quality.
  • Wear a Mask: If you need to be outside, experts advise wearing a mask to reduce your exposure to pollutants.

As Wisconsin braces for another season under the haze of Canadian wildfire smoke, it’s crucial to remember that secondhand smoke isn’t just a concern with tobacco—it extends to the toxic particles drifting from wildfires. The health risks are significant, from respiratory irritation to heightened cancer risks, affecting everyone, especially vulnerable populations like pregnant women and those with preexisting conditions.

To safeguard your well-being during periods of compromised air quality, staying informed and proactive is key. Monitor air quality reports, invest in air purifiers, keep indoor environments sealed, consult with healthcare professionals for personalized advice, and consider wearing masks when outdoors.

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