Using the Wildfire Guide to Reduce your City and County’s Smoke Exposure Risk

By Wayne Cascio and Erika Sasser, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

October is Healthy Lung Month and a good time to think about ways NACCHO members and their partners can protect the health of the public from the impacts of wildfire smoke. The best way to prevent unhealthy outcomes of wildfire smoke events is to educate your community and have a plan in place. The recently updated 2019 Wildfire Smoke Guide for Public Health Officials can help local health professionals do just that.

Public health professionals and associated regional healthcare coalitions can use the guide to prepare their communities for smoke from wildfires, which can adversely impact air quality for people living near a fire and, also, for those living much farther away. Once smoke moves aloft into the atmosphere, it can travel hundreds to thousands of miles to other towns and cities and impact air quality. Even if your community is not prone to wildfires, this guide can help you prepare for unexpected wildfire smoke in your community.

The Wildfire Smoke Guide provides the latest information and science on wildfire smoke and effective strategies for reducing smoke exposure.  Compiled by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and three other federal and state agencies, the updated Guide explains who is at risk from wildfire smoke, what communities can do to prepare for wildfire events and what steps can be taken to reduce exposure to wildfire smoke. The Guide is intended to instruct public health officials on how to communicate clearly and quickly to reduce health risks in areas with wildfire smoke, but it can be used by individuals to learn what they can do before, during, and after a wildfire.

The largest threat from wildfire smoke is fine particle pollution (PM2.5) that can cause serious health effects. People with heart or breathing problems, or older adults, children and pregnant women are more at risk from smoke exposure. As concentrations of PM2.5 increase, the risk can extend to healthier individuals. The health risks are explained in EPA’s Air Quality Index, which is used by airnow.gov, a multi-agency website that offers reports on daily air quality conditions and associated health risks for individuals.

The Wildfire Smoke Guide has five chapters:

  • Health effects of wildfire smoke
  • Wildfire smoke and air quality impacts
  • Specific strategies to reduce exposure to wildfire smoke
  • Communicate air quality conditions during smoke events
  • Recommendations for public health actions

Wildfire-related fact sheets also have been developed to accompany the guide and are available online. These fact sheets offer actionable advice on important topics of interest to affected communities such as how to reduce smoke exposure indoors and outdoors. People often have questions about masks and respirators; one of the fact sheets discusses which types of respiratory protection work best.

As public health professionals, we can make a difference in protecting the public from wildfire smoke events. We invite you to explore the resources below.

Share EPA’s PSA video on the Wildfire Smoke Guide.

Order free infographic cards on how to reduce health risks during wildfires and the proper use of a respirator.

Access the guide and other wildfire smoke resources on the Smoke-Ready Toolbox for Wildfires.

About the authors:

Dr. Erika Sasser is the Director of the Health and Environmental Impacts Division in the Office of Air Quality, Planning and Standards at the U.S. EPA.  She leads the review of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards, national air toxics assessments, economic and health benefits analyses, and programs to reduce international transboundary air pollution.

Dr. Wayne Cascio is the Director of the Center for Public Health and Environmental Assessment at the U.S. EPA. He is a physician who leads research seeking to better understand the effect of environmental conditions on human health and ecosystems, and helping communities find solutions to environmental public health challenges.

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