How to create a wildfire smoke-free space

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Wildfires can significantly affect air quality, both outdoors and indoors. As the wildfire season approaches, it's crucial to prepare and protect yourself and your loved ones from the harmful effects of its smoke

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UNDERSTANDING THE IMPACT OF WILDFIRE SMOKE

Wildfires can significantly affect air quality, both outdoors and indoors. As the wildfire season approaches, it’s crucial to prepare and protect yourself and your loved ones from the harmful effects of its smoke. The best approach to being safe is to limit the amount of toxic particles you inhale. This post will guide you on how to create a “smoke-free space” in your home and precautions to take during wildfire smoke season, especially when you’re in a car. 

Wildfire smoke is composed of gaseous pollutants (e.g., carbon monoxide), hazardous air pollutants (e.g., polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), water vapor, and particle pollution (also referred to as particulate matter or PM). Recent studies have found high levels of cancer-causing components benzene and formaldehyde in the fumes of wildfire smoke. 

Short-term exposure to wildfire smoke can harm your eyes, irritate your respiratory system, and worsen chronic heart and lung diseases. However, prolonged exposure to smoke can cause long-term consequences such as heart and lung problems and cancer for even the healthiest among us.

Who can benefits from a smoke-free space?

When the Air Quality Index (AQI) is high, indicating a high level of air pollution, everyone benefits from a smoke-free space. No one should breathe toxic wildfire smoke. While anyone can benefit from a smoke-free space during a wildfire, it’s particularly beneficial for individuals at greater risk from smoke exposure. Keep your pets indoors and ensure their food and water is not contaminated. 

If you have heart or lung disease, including asthma, consult with your healthcare provider about what to do during smoke events. Make sure you have enough medication for potential flare-ups or shortages.

Even if you’re healthy, it’s important to remember that wildfire smoke can still cause symptoms like coughing, shortness of breath, chest pain, and throat irritation. If you or anyone in your household experiences these symptoms, seek medical attention immediately.

Creating a smoke-free space

Although you can reduce exposure to wildfire smoke by sheltering indoors, it is crucial to be aware that the smoke can still infiltrate indoor spaces through small openings in walls, doors, or windows; or be pumped in through air conditioners that source outside air.

A smoke-free space, also known as a clean air room, is set up to keep levels of smoke and other particles as low as possible during wildfire smoke events. The doors and windows should be kept closed to prevent smoke from getting in, and the room should be free from activities that create particles such as cooking, or smoking. 

Choose a Space– It should be big enough to fit everyone in your household, including pets, and comfortable to spend time in. A bedroom or living room with an attached bathroom is a good choice. Stop Smoke from Entering– Close all windows and doors in the room. If there is an exhaust fan or range hood in the clean room space, only use it for short periods. Use caulk or weatherstripping to seal any cracks or gaps in windows or doors. Turn your HVAC system to the "ON" setting so that it constantly recirculates and filters the air. Upgrade your HVAC filters to MERV 13 or the highest MERV rating that is compatible with your system. Create your own wildfire smoke-free space When the Air Quality Index (AQI) is high, everyone benefits from a smoke-free space. It's especially important for individuals at greater risk from smoke exposure. No one should breathe toxic wildfire smoke. Although it is good advice to reduce exposure to wildfire smoke by sheltering indoors, smoke can infiltrate indoor spaces so it is important to take action to improve indoor air quality (IAQ). Filter the air– Use a portable air cleaner that is the right size for the room. Run the portable air cleaner continuously on the highest fan setting if you can. You may opt for a do-it-yourself (DIY) air cleaner also known as the Corsi-Rosenthal Box. Plan For Activities– Plan for WFH, online school, and fun activities like movies, games, and reading books to make the time spent indoors more enjoyable. Avoid smoking, candles, and cooking. Respirators If smoke enters the room or if you need to go outdoors, wear an N95 mask or appropriate well-fitting respirator for wildfires. On the bottom, it says: When outdoor air quality improves to safe levels, as can be assessed by the Air Quality Index (AQI), then we encourage you once again to ventilate your home by opening windows and/or using mechanical ventilation to exchange indoor and outdoor air. On the top, it says www.airsupportproject.com/how-to-create-a-wildfire-smoke-free-space/ CC BY-ND 4.0 In the left-hand corner is Air Support Project’s logo
Image 1: Create Your Own Smoke-Free Space Credit: Air Support Project | CC BY-ND 4.0

Here’s how to set up a smoke-free space at home:

  • Choose a space: It should be big enough to fit everyone in your household, including pets, and comfortable to spend time in. A bedroom or living room with an attached bathroom is a good choice. 
  • Prevent smoke from entering the room: Close all windows and doors in the room. If there is an exhaust fan or range hood in the clean room space, only use it for short periods. Use caulk or weatherstripping to seal any cracks or gaps in windows or doors where smoke might enter. However, ensure that you can still easily enter and exit the room in case of an emergency.
  • Adjust HVAC settings in your home and vehicles: When outside air quality is poor, it is essential to reduce ventilation of outdoor air in your home and vehicle(s). To reduce potentially harmful outdoor particulates inside, change your HVAC settings to the “ON” (not Auto) function so it is continuously running the air through filters. Do not use window air conditioners or window fans. Use “recirculate” settings on vehicles. At home, it is vital to compensate for lack of ventilation by increasing filtration. One simple way to increase filtration is to install upgraded HVAC filters that are at MERV 13 or the highest compatible filter with your system. 
  • Filter the air in the room: Use a portable air cleaner that is the right size for the room. Run the portable air cleaner continuously on the highest fan setting if you can. If portable air cleaners are unavailable or you want to save money, you may opt for a do-it-yourself (DIY) air cleaner also known as the Corsi-Rosenthal Box.
  • Clean Air Delivery Rate (CADR) is the most important metric when picking out an air purifier. Aim to get 8-12 Air Changes per Hour (ACH) by using filtration by combining units with high CADR. CADR for HEPA purifiers is listed by the manufacturer to help you determine your customized filtration needs (use the smoke rating for COVID and wildfire smoke). A CR Box CADR varies depending on the components used when making it. For example, the typical CR Box made with four 2-inch MERV-13 filters using a Lasko 20-inch box fan has a CADR of 600-800 cubic feet per minute (cfm)

 

When buying an air purifier, consider the following tips:

  • Check the CADR Rating: Look for the Clean Air Delivery Rate (CADR) rating on the product’s packaging or the manufacturer’s website. A smoke CADR rating of around 200-300 cubic meters per hour (m3/hr) or approximately 118-176 cubic feet per minute (cfm) is suitable for small to medium-sized rooms. 
  • Avoid Ion Generators and Plasma Air Cleaners: Steer clear of air purifiers that use ion generators or plasma technology, as they can emit ozone, which poses respiratory hazards and can lead to serious health issues.
  • Stay Away from Photocatalytic Oxidation (PCO) Air Cleaners: Avoid air purifiers equipped with photocatalytic oxidation (PCO) technology, as they have been found to generate harmful substances like formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, nitrogen dioxide, and carbon monoxide.

 

By following these guidelines, you can make a more informed decision when purchasing an air purifier and ensure better indoor air quality in your living spaces. You can also determine the amount of combined CADR needed for your specific space to achieve 12 ACH (air changes per hour)– a common recommendation to reduce COVID-19 risks– by using the following formula:

  • Choose Wise Indoor Activities, Reduce Outdoor Activities, and Practice Good Hygiene: When the outdoor air quality is poor, and indoor ventilation is reduced, it is important to minimize additional sources of indoor pollution, such as smoking, burning candles, and using harsh chemical cleaners. Instead, favor natural cleaning products, and limit smoke-generating activities like stovetop cooking or using fireplaces. Prepare to work from home or for online school classes. Alternatively, participate in relaxed activities such as playing board games, watching movies, or doing light stretching. Taking a shower after being outdoors, as well as changing clothes, washing sheets, and changing out masks more frequently will reduce the number of harmful particulates you breathe in. Remember to keep your pets clean, especially animals like dogs that need to spend time outside. It is best practice to use a respirator while cleaning, as wildfire smoke particles can be aerosolized and therefore inhaled easily. Use vacuum cleaners that have HEPA filters and avoid vacuums without HEPA filters, as they can release soot particulates into the air. 
  • Use respirators: If smoke enters the room or if you need to go outdoors, wear an N95 mask or appropriate respirator for wildfires. To help protect you from inhaling harmful particles, consider wearing respirator masks (N-95, KF94, KN-95, or better), and keep in mind child-sized KN95 masks are available for children ages 2 and above. Surgical or fabric masks, on the other hand, will not provide adequate protection against smoke inhalation and should only be used if N-95 masks are not available. Half-face respirators, elastomeric masks, and PAPRs can be ordered with filters that can remove even more harmful substances from wildfire smoke, such as formaldehyde gases. For more information on different respirators, view Suggested Respirators for the Different Phases of a Wildfire.
  • Ventilate When Air Quality Improves: When outdoor air quality improves to safe levels, as can be assessed by the Air Quality Index (AQI), then we encourage you to resume ventilating your home using mechanical ventilation to exchange indoor and outdoor air. In addition, open windows to let in fresh air and create a cross breeze where possible, or place a fan to blow indoor air to the outside. This can dilute lingering smoke and any indoor air pollution in your home. Ventilation lowers carbon dioxide (CO2) from building up inside the home. CO2 should ideally be kept below 800 ppm, or below 1000 ppm if additional filtration measures are applied (which can be measured using a CO2 Monitor such as an Aranet 4.

Precautions in the Car During Wildfire Smoke Events

When driving in wildfire smoke, it’s essential to take precautions to protect yourself from inhaling it. Wear a well-fitting respirator and keep your car windows and vents closed. If possible, turn off the recirculate setting to avoid drawing in outside air.

Stay informed with the air quality index

The Air Quality Index (AQI) is a tool that helps you understand the quality of air in your area. It measures five major air pollutants regulated by the Clean Air Act: ground-level ozone, particle pollution, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide. To learn more about the AQI and how to interpret it, check out our blog post on Reading Between the AQI Lines.

Remember, creating a smoke-free space is a temporary solution for smoke protection during a wildfire. Always follow local news and air quality updates, and be prepared to evacuate if necessary. Stay safe and protect your health during wildfire events. When you know better, you can breathe better. The only way out is through and we are here to help you navigate your IAQ so that you can breathe cleaner, live healthier, and perform better.

SARAH MASIH, MD, MBA

SARAH MASIH, MD, MBA

I am an innovative communication freelancer with a passion for social impact startups. My background in fundraising and experience in leading high-impact projects is a driving force to ASP’s momentum.

This content is published under a creative commons — attribution/no derivatives license.

FROM A PROJECT TO A PRODUCT

We are a social startup aiming to manufacture a low-cost, high-performance air purifier inspired by the Corsi-Rosenthal Box. Our journey began once we started making our CR boxes and wondered why there wasn't a comparable product available on the market. Check out our blog post that describes, the people, events, and movement that have shaped our company.

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