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Indoor air quality important

DENVER – Air quality in the home and the office can suffer, too, when smoke from wildfires blankets communities, according to experts at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. As a result, striking a balance between smoke exposure and air quality inside can be a challenge.

“Generally, air quality inside buildings is not as good as what we would normally breathe outside,” said Ned Calonge, acting chief medical officer for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “However, one of the first precautions we advise people to take when they experience smoke-related symptoms or smell smoke from wildfires is to move indoors.”

Calonge continued, “It is important, though, to remember that indoor air quality is equally as important. We have fielded questions from countless residents about what precautions they can take inside as well as when they are outside.”

At home, residents who are beginning to experience smoke-related symptoms such as coughing, and eye, mouth, nose or throat irritation, should stay indoors with the windows closed as long as it is safe to do so, Calonge said. Children and adults affected by smoke also can reduce their risk by decreasing physical activity.

High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) room filtration systems may be helpful. The degree to which such systems clean indoor air depends upon if they are adequate for the size of the room they are in and how quickly they can move air through the unit.

Using home air conditioning or the fan feature on home heating systems (with the heat turned off) can provide some benefit by using what filtration exists within the system. Be sure to keep the filters and fresh air intake on the unit clean.

During times of concern about indoor air quality, residents should avoid using anything that burns, including candles, and should refrain from smoking, especially while indoors.

Respiratory protection devices can be helpful, provided they are properly fitted and used correctly. To be effective, however, they must be able to filter out very small particles and fit snugly so an airtight seal is created around the user’s face, Calonge advised. Beards make it virtually impossible for a wearer to achieve a proper fit.

Because of the difficulty in using masks correctly, they are not necessarily recommended for those exposed to wildfire smoke outside of firefighting activities. They may be beneficial for other outdoor workers, or others who need to be outdoors for some activities. They may be used to reduce overall smoke exposure in conjunction with staying indoors, reducing activity, and using HEPA air filters.

Commonly available paper dust masks or bandannas (wet or dry) offer little or no protection, Calonge warned. Properly used respiratory protection devices that are rated to filter out at least 95 percent of airborne particles can offer significant protection. Remember, however, these masks do not protect against carbon monoxide poisoning.

Indoor air quality is a concern at the office as well, especially in large office buildings. Such buildings are unlikely to be able to be sealed off effectively from the outside and rely upon constant air exchange with the outside to maintain adequate air quality indoors.

As the workday progresses, carbon dioxide levels in an office building will increase because building occupants continually exhale. Carbon dioxide is a normal component of the air we exhale. Emissions from hairspray, perfume, cleaning solutions and gases from new carpets, furniture and paint also degrade indoor air quality.

Although most buildings are equipped with filters on their air-handling systems, the filters generally are designed to filter out much larger things than the particles that exist in smoke, such as bugs and plant materials. Property managers could consider utilizing filters designed to trap smaller particles during a severe smoke event, if available. All filters should be kept clean or replaced often.

More Information:

– The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) publication “The Inside Story: A Guide to Indoor Air Quality” is available online at http://www.epa.gov/iaq/pubs/insidest.html.

– The Department of Public Health and Environment’s Air

Pollution Control Division Web site: http://www.cdphe.state.co.us/cdphehom.asp

– Pollution Control Division’s Web site: http://apcd.state.co.us/.

– Air quality meteorologists are providing smoke forecasts for wildfires burning in Colorado and throughout the region. The forecasts are updated at least twice daily and are included on the air quality telephone hotlines: (303) 782-0211 and (303) 758-4848.


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