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How to cope with the haze

The wildfires mean that even healthy people should limit outdoor activities when the air is smoky. The young, the old and the ill need to be extra careful.

October 27, 2003|Jane E. Allen | Times Staff Writer

The wildfires blanketing Southern California in recent days with smoky, sun-obscuring haze have subtle effects on healthy people.

When air pollution suddenly surges because of wildfires, people with asthma and lung disease are advised to take it easy and seek refuge indoors. Air-quality agencies also advise the elderly, the very young and those with heart disease to take precautions because the extra burden on their lungs can be life-threatening. A growing body of evidence indicates that the bad air can trigger heart attacks and deaths.

But generally healthy people, too, may want to think about changing some of their daily habits, especially if they live in the smokiest areas. A fire's combustion generates fine particles that lodge deep in the lungs, where they can damage tissues and trigger inflammation.

Although exposure to smoky air is irritating, researchers don't believe it causes long-term medical problems in healthy people, even when fires burn for a few weeks, said Dr. Sverre Vedal, a pulmonologist at National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver and an authority on air pollution health effects.

However, to be prudent, anyone living or working near the fires should avoid more than an hour of vigorous outdoor exercise, such as basketball, running, soccer and swimming, because the body takes in 10 to 20 times more air during exertion than when at rest. These activities typically require "big gulps of air," Vedal said.

On Friday, the South Coast Air Quality Management District in Diamond Bar, which monitors pollution in Orange County and portions of L.A., San Bernardino and Riverside counties, suggested limiting outdoor activity as part of a smoke advisory for areas particularly hard-hit by the fires. When smoke reduces visibility to less than a mile, health authorities typically advise everyone to close doors and windows at home, turn on air conditioning or use room fans and avoid house fans that draw in outdoor air. Such steps can screen out most of the larger particles; smaller particles still can enter through tiny cracks and openings. Home air cleaners with HEPA filters do not help, experts said. On the road, drivers can roll up their car windows and adjust air conditioning to re-circulate indoor air.

Wearing a mask may help put some distance between you and the larger pollution particles, especially an N-95, the type of mask used to protect against inhalation anthrax or industrial chemicals. "But for some of the gases and small particles, it's not clear how effective they are," said Jean Ospital, a toxicologist with the AQMD.

For those living farther away, the need for precautions "depends on how sensitive you are," he said. Vedal, who has been studying the short-term and long-term effects of the wildfires around Denver in June 2002, when the sky turned an eerie red and ash built up on cars, said people can judge whether they're experiencing the irritating effects of smoke on their throats and eyes and whether they need to step up precautions.

Children tend to be more sensitive than adults, he said. That's because they tend to inhale more air for their size than adults, meaning they also take in a higher dose of pollutants. If the air is merely hazy, Vedal does not generally advise parents to restrict children's activities. But if the air is noticeably smoky, "I'd be a little more conservative."

Once you've been exposed to the irritating effects of smoke, there isn't much to be done. You can seek temporary relief by using soothing eyedrops and gargling with salt water, Vedal said. And stay inside to give your body a rest.

And although no one has made any formal studies of pets and fire-related air pollution, studies in laboratory animals have found that they can be affected by air pollution. So you might want to think about keeping them inside if you live in a smoke-heavy area.

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