Maintaining Healthy Indoor Air Quality During ‘Fire Season’
I’ve lived in California for over 30 years. For most of that time I never really thought about wildfires. Their destructive flames seemed only possible in the movies. That has changed, not just for me, but for most of California, who have become brutally aware of the very real threat wildfire poses.
While the fire itself is by far the most destructive part of the wildfires the smoke they create can have far worse consequences on our health.
The hundreds of chemical reactions that take place during and after a fire can release not only particulate matter but chemical compounds through the form of smoke into the air we breathe. Once in the air, both particulate matter and chemical compounds can seep into your building materials and affect air quality if not properly cleaned after the fire.
Most often the part of the smoke that immediately draws our attention and concern is soot, char, and ash, or particulate matter that is easiest to see with the naked eye.
However, the hundreds of chemical compounds released by reactions caused by the wildfire and carried by the smoke can lead to short-term and chronic health problems. Some of these chemicals, the highly reactive and volatile, will dissipate quickly and are not a concern for long term contamination; there are other chemicals carried by the wildfire smoke that can linger for weeks, months and even years, which can cause or amplify existing health problems.
How to Deal with Poor Air Quality Caused by Wildfires
Most of us have at least been around a campfire, if not having experienced wildfires first hand, and know how irritating and noxious the smoke can be.
If you are unable to leave the smoke contaminated area there are several things you can do to help mitigate the detrimental effects the smoke may have on your health.
If you are looking to just protect yourself by wearing some sort of mask, make sure the mask you are using has a filter rating that can handle smoke, something we covered in-depth in a previous blog post, Bay Area Wildfire Smoke and Indoor Air Quality. If you are just looking for mask recommendations, however, we recommend:
N95 Particulate Respirator Mask with Breathing Valve as an inexpensive option.
Amston N99 Model 1802 Protective Dust Mask with Exhalation Valve provides better filtration for just a few additional dollars.
GVS SPR467 Elipse OV-P100 Dust and Organic Vapour Half Mask Respirator are what we prefer to use, the additional money spent can be considered an investment in your long term health.
Indoor Air Quality Protection
Maintaining healthy air quality is not only a great practice during fire season but a great way to maintain your health and happiness year-round. When outdoor air pollution is low its a great idea to open up as many windows and doors as you can to let the building breathe, considering though that this article is about how to stay healthy during fire season, I doubt the outdoor air pollution is low, in which case we recommend using in-room HEPA filters to improve your air quality.Whirlpool Whispure Air Purifier WP500: This is the model that several of our inspectors personally use. We often refer to this as the “Toyota Camry” of HEPA filters as it’s not the fanciest but is our go-to workhorse.
HealthPro Plus Air Purifier: from IQAir is what we recommend to our clients with extreme sensitivities or medical conditions. We affectionately refer to this as the “Rolls Royce” as it’s not only dependable but has all the bells and whistles anyone could need.
You can also make cheap but effective air filters at home by combining your standard box fan with a 20-inch x 20-inch x 1-inch MERV 13 filter and some duct tape, we show you how here.
While often a second thought, protecting and/or cleaning the air quality in your car has become more and more important as our commutes grow longer as traffic seems to always be increasing. This can be even more important when your family is fleeing from a fire. It’s nice to know that automotive manufacturers are beginning to take air quality seriously, and while Tesla’s Bioweapon defense feature may seem a little over-kill to some, it has already proven itself against California’s wildfires (Watch Tesla with ‘Bioweapon Defense’ air system drive through scary wildfires).
If you don’t drive a Tesla, however, there are several air filters you can get to keep you and your family healthy and happy while traveling in your vehicle.
Make sure you regularly have your in-car air filter changed, daily driving on our polluted highways is enough to clog up these filters, let alone particulate matter from a wildfire.
Queenty’s HEPA Car Air Purifier is great if you are on a budget.
IQ Air’s Atem Car Air Purifier is our preferred in-car filter, as IQ air is one of the most reputable air filter manufacturers on the market and this model fits neatly on the back of a headrest.
Assessing the Post Fire Damage
Did the smoke damage your building? When assessing any sort of wildfire or smoke damage, one of the most difficult parts is determining the level of residue left behind by the fire and smoke. It’s easy to spot the visual traces of smoke damage, particulate matter residues like soot, char, and ash on surfaces, but even when these visible residues are gone you can still have a smoky smell and residual chemical compounds that can cause burning eyes, irritated sinus, and difficulty breathing.
There are two primary concerns with fire and smoke residue:
Has the fire or smoke residue been removed to an acceptable level?
Are there any health or exposure concerns with any remaining traces?
The length of time you and your building are exposed to post-fire contaminations is largely reliant on two things; environmental conditions (how long did the fire burn) and proper post-fire cleaning (how effectively did you clean up after the fire).
If you are looking to file a smoke-related insurance claim, insurance companies oftentimes require proof of the damage. We can test for smoke damage at any point in time, but the sooner we are brought in the more likely we will be able to provide your insurance company with the type of testing and results they will need to move your claim forward, oftentimes they require in some form of soot analysis: PLM/SEM/TEM and Combustion by-product analysis. At this time it may be beneficial to perform soil analysis testing for asbestos (Asbestos: PLM and TEM) and settled heavy metals (CAM 17 Metals).
After the wildfire smoke has cleared, properly ventilating your building is always a great way to improve indoor air quality. Ventilation decreases the chemical composition of the existing air by bringing in the clean fresh air (high temperatures and high humidity can cause the off-gassing of chemicals trapped in building materials, this often leads to smokey smells returning to in the spring and summer to buildings that had not been cleaned properly)
Next, do a detailed deep clean (dry wipe + wet wipe + HEPA Vacuum everything). We recommend 7th Generation dish soap and chem sponges to clean surfaces. Our favorite HEPA vacuum is the Miele Compact C2. If you haven’t already, begin running portable HEPA filters referenced earlier in this article.
At this point, if you feel the deep cleaning was adequate but are still experiencing adverse effects to your health you can call us in to perform VOC testing to determine whether or not you would need to begin a remediation process to remove building materials that may have absorbed chemicals and odors released by the wildfire. Depending on the time-frame testing occurs after the fire this could be as simple as collecting air samples, collecting surface samples using wipes, or as minimally invasive as removing material samples to be sent to the lab.
Once we receive the results from the lab we would be able to determine if your building or home was damaged by wildfire smoke, whether the building materials absorbed chemicals, how much they are off-gassing, and what kind of gasses and contaminants were present. From here we can help you develop a plan to begin the remediation process by putting you in touch with a quality remediation contractor to begin removing the damaged materials. Once the contractor has removed all the damaged material, we should perform the same sampling as before to determine that, in fact, all the damaged materials have been removed.
We hope you found this article informative and leave here with the information you needed to better protect your health and that of your building or home. If you have any further questions or would like to spark up a lively debate about the methods described here feel free to get in touch with us!
Who is Healthy Building Science?
Environmental Testing Services at HBS
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