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Hazardous air quality creates new living reality for Tahoe residents

Miranda Jacobson
Special to the Sierra Sun
Wildfire smoke inhalation has many negative impacts for humans and animals. (Mike Peron/ Tahoe Daily Tribune)

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – Heavy smoke has plagued the basin for close to a month now, and with rising frequency of wildfires, residents of Lake Tahoe might consider preparing for seasonal smoke.

Wildfire smoke is incredibly dangerous for humans and animals to inhale for a number of reasons, all boiling down to the deteriorating effect it can have on the human body. While mild symptoms can occur with limited exposure, researchers are beginning to wonder if the smoke is going to affect people in local areas that have been inhaling smoke particles for weeks.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, smoke inhalation can be more dangerous than other pollutants because it can take up to 24 to 48 hours for symptoms to begin to show. Mild symptoms of smoke inhalation complications include burning eyes and a runny nose, but overtime can grow into serious cardiovascular or respiratory diseases that can lead to severe illness, or even premature death.



The EPA has not yet conducted studies evaluating the effects attributed to wildfire smoke exposure over multiple seasons.

In the last two weeks, Incline Village, Nev. and South Lake Tahoe, Calif. have taken the number one spot on IQ Air with the worst air quality in the US. As of Wednesday, South Lake Tahoe’s PM 2.5 concentration was two times that recommended level by WHO annual air quality guidelines.



Chief Medical Officer of Barton Health Dr. Matthew Wonnacott said that Barton is planning ahead to protect their buildings from smoke following the reopening of their facilities.

“Barton has implemented protocols to help the air quality within our facilities including utilizing air filtration systems, keeping exit/entrance doors closed, and taping of windows,” said Dr. Wonnacott.

Although warnings are given out for AQI 150 readings solely for people who are sensitive, it is being found that wildfire smoke can not only erode at the body’s immune system over time, but can cause other viruses, such as COVID-19, to attack your immune system, or even lead to lung disease or death, even without being sensitive.

The particle in smoke that is most dangerous to the human body is Particulate Matter 2.5, or PM 2.5. This matter is able to penetrate deep into the lungs, and eventually make its way into the cardiovascular system without proper protection and care. The particles are able to destroy the cells that push invaders out of our body, which means we’re more susceptible to illness.

When a body is fighting the PM 2.5 particles, it leaves the immune system distracted, and COVID-19 and other viruses are able to strike.

In a study done by Harvard biostatistician Francesca Dominici, California, Oregon, and Washington counties were asked for data regarding COVID-19 patients 28 days after wildfire smoke was detected in the areas, and more than half the counties that participated saw an increase in COVID-19 cases.

Additionally, wildfire PM 2.5 was associated with 11% more cases and 8% more deaths.

So as the health concerns become worse in the area, residents are now considering what they can do in order to continue living in areas that will most likely continue to see fire seasons.

Dr. Wonnacott offered many ways to combat smoke in the home and the intrusive PM 2.5 in the lungs.

The first is to limit exposure as much as possible. The obvious solution is to stay inside with all windows and doors shut; with that in mind, as people go back to work and counties begin to open up again, EPA officials suggest having a large supply of N-95 or P-100 masks available to use that are worn correctly at all times.

“This type of mask can filter out smoke or ash particles before you breathe them in,” said Dr. Wonnacott.

For the masks to work correctly, they must be tightly fitted to the face. Improper use will render the mask useless against the smoke.

Having a supply of nonperishable foods that don’t require cooking is beneficial, as cooking with heat, especially though frying or boiling, can cause more indoor air pollution.

If you have the ability to get an air purifier, it’s recommended to do so. Avoid buying them during fire season, and rather prepare ahead of time during the off season, as they can sell out quickly during the summer months.

If you have pre-existing medical conditions that could potentially make you more susceptible to effects of smoke inhalation, it’s best to consult with a healthcare provider about how to prepare for fire seasons in your area.

For more information about the effects of wildfire smoke and how you can protect yourself, visit the EPA’s website at epa.gov/pm-pollution/how-smoke-fires-can-affect-your-health.

Miranda Jacobson is a Staff Writer for the Tahoe Daily Tribune, a sister publication to the Sierra Sun. She can be reached at mjacobson@tahoedailytribune.com


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