Forest Fires and Air Quality in WNC

This is going to be a quick one, because it’s the middle of my workday and yours.  We’ve got forest fires burning in WNC and no rain in the forecast.  We can smell it outside in Asheville and they’re issuing air quality alerts.  What can you do about it?  What should you do about it?

You should take a few simple steps to reduce your exposure to the particulate matter that’s in our outside air.  People with asthma and respiratory problems already know that it’s not good for them.  But scientists are finding that it’s not so good for the rest of us either.  There’s a growing area of research that shows that particulate matter in our air is bad for our cardiac health and can contribute to heart attacks and strokes.  People who are exposed to higher levels of particulate matter have higher levels of inflammation markers in their blood.

The first thing you can do is try to limit your time spent outdoors, especially if it involves exertion that you’re not used to.  The next thing you can do is try to lower your exposure to particulate matter that makes it indoors.  Typically about half of the particulate matter in indoor air comes from outdoors. That percentage can increase when the outdoor air quality is bad.  Closing windows helps, but some will make it inside anyway.  Using a filter is a good way to reduce it.

MERV 11 residential filter

Check the filter in your heating/air conditioning system. If it’s white and pleated, it’s probably a decent filter.  If so, go to your thermostat and change the fan setting to “fan on”.  When the outdoor air quality improves, change it back to “auto” because this does use a non-negligible amount of energy.

If you have a blue or white filter that’s so thin you can practically see through it, it’s not going to do anything to reduce this particulate matter, so don’t bother running the fan.  You can buy a good replacement filter for it.  I recommend going to Ace Hardware and buying a filter with a MERV rating of at least 11.  If it’s an older heating/air system I wouldn’t go higher than 11 because fans can have trouble pushing air through thicker filters (Yes, rarely even a MERV 11 can be a problem, but most systems will handle it).  Why Ace Hardware?  First, they’re locally owned and deserve your support.  Second, most of the “big box” stores sell mostly filters that aren’t MERV rated.  The brands they sell use their own proprietary ratings and it’s hard to compare one filter to another.  If you have to go to a big box store for some reason, buy one of the white pleated more highly rated versions they sell and hope for the best.

Low efficiency residential filter – replace it!
Low efficiency residential filter – replace it!

Room air cleaners are also great, as long as they don’t generate ozone.  Ozone is a big-time lung irritant, and you don’t need to add that to your troubles today.  The California air resources board publishes a list of ozone compliant air cleaners where you can check one you own or are considering buying.  If you’re buying a room air cleaner, AHAM has a great search tool where you can find one that’s appropriate for the specific room where you plan to use it. These work really well in bedrooms.  They generate a bit of white noise, but most people adapt to them easily.

Copyright 2016.  Amy Musser.