The LIE at exit 58 in Islandia on Wednesday as...

The LIE at exit 58 in Islandia on Wednesday as smoke from the Canada wildfires continued to thicken the air across Long Island. Credit: James Carbone

Smoke from more than 100 wildfires in Canada is predicted to remain at least through the weekend across Long Island and the rest of the metropolitan area. Here are questions with answers about the health dangers associated with the smoke, how it differs from more common air pollution, and what steps can be taken to avoid the hazards of inhaling the particulates of soot and ash.

Why is this smoke unhealthy and just how dangerous is it?

The smoke pouring down from wildfires in Canada is unhealthy because it is bad to put anything in your lungs, said Dr. Sameer Khanijo, a pulmonologist and director of respiratory therapy at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset. He equated it to breathing in the secondhand smoke from someone smoking a cigarette.

“Any inhalation of any material is not good for the lungs,” he said.

Is it worse than regular air pollution?

The smoke is worse than most regular air pollution because the particulates are so small they can get deep into your airways and lungs, he said. They are invisible to the naked eye.

Dr. Norman Edelman, a pulmonologist, professor of internal medicine and core member of the Program in Public Health at Stony Brook University, noted that smoke pollution is different from “regular” pollution or smog, which is made up mainly of ozone. The smoke pollution particulates are basically ash from the fires.

“Ash can be very, very acid,” he said, and be “particularly irritating to the linings of the airways of the nose and the throat and the lung. Basically you are burning the linings of your airways.”

People with asthma, emphysema, COPD, or chronic bronchitis, will likely suffer worsening symptoms such as wheezing, coughing, or shortness of breath, the doctors said.

“It’s not good at all and it will cause many, many problems in people who have pre-existing lung problems,” Edelman said.

He said it also can cause heart problems. 

Can I go outside? Is it OK to exercise outside, ride a bike, walk, etc.? What precautions should people take? Are some people more at risk than others?

In general, if you are in good health you can go outside, but the less the better, experts said.

“If you absolutely need to, yes,” such as getting out of the car to go to work or going to the grocery store, Khanijo said.

Edelman said how much you go out depends on your risk factors.

“If you have pre-existing lung disease … asthma, COPD, basically any lung disease, it would be unadvisable to go outside unless you have to,” he said. “You don’t have to lock yourself in your house, but it would be advisable to limit the time outside.”

Experts recommend that people not exercise outdoors until the air clears, especially if they have pre-existing pulmonary problems.

“I don’t see any good reason to inhale acid particles in your lungs unless you have to,” Edelman said.

The group with preexisting conditions will be most impacted by the smoke, Khanijo said. “People who are generally healthy may not feel as much.”

Should I wear a mask outside? Does a mask help?

Health officials are recommending the use of high-quality masks such as N95 or K95, especially for those with pre-existing pulmonary conditions. The masks can help filter out the particulates, while other types likely will not help, they said.

“If you want to keep dirt out of your lungs, just wear it,” Edelman said. “This stuff is just dirt.”

How much of this smoke can get into a house not perfectly sealed? Should I keep windows closed? Is there anything I can do to mitigate the smoke inside the house?

Some smoke can get into your house depending on how tightly sealed it is, but people should take whatever steps they can to minimize it, experts said.

Edelman said people should keep their windows shut as tightly as possible, and use air conditioners with good filters, though they are not 100% effective. It is also good to recirculate the air inside with the AC rather than continually bringing in air from outside, he said.

Khanijo noted that it is nearly impossible to completely seal most houses, and it’s not realistic on a short timetable. “We can’t change our house today or tomorrow,” he said.

But keeping doors open as little as possible as you go in and out of your homes can help, he said. Indoor air purifiers may also help.

If I am coughing a lot from the smoke, what should I do? Any medications?

If you are already on medication for a pulmonary problem, you should check with your doctor to see if the dosage should be increased, Edelman said.

If you are not on any medications for these issues, but develop problems, you should contact your doctor, he said.

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