Randy Yohe Published

Smoky Air Calls For Health Precautions

hills, highway and smoky skyline
I-64 in Charleston with smoky hills and sky in the background on June 29, 2023.
Randy Yohe/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

This is a developing story and may be updated.

Updated on Thursday, June 29, 2023 at 3:30 p.m.

The particles that wildfire smoke produces are small enough to cause big problems according to Dr Sunil Sharma, the division chief for pulmonary critical care at West Virginia University. He said they are not allergens. 

“These are so small particles that our body’s filters – the nasal hairs and others, are not able to filter them,” Sharma said. “They have the ability to go all the way deep into a respiratory symptom. They also have an ability, which we call a spillover, to go into our blood. These are not allergens. These are irritants that can cause inflammation inside your lungs. And that’s why they’re so dangerous. Imagine people who already have lung problems.” 

Sharma noted that West Virginia has the highest number of COPD patients in the U.S. He said this obstructive lung disease, a very fatal condition often caused by smoking, means people’s lungs are already damaged and inflamed. He said any extra inflammation can tip them over, causing increased hospitalization and emergency room visits. 

Man in suit with dark hair looking directly into the camera.
Dr Sunil Sharma

“The small particulates, when you’re exposed to these and they spill into your blood, can cause heart attacks, “Sharma said. “You see increased rates of heart attacks during these periods of acute exposure to these very small particulates.” 

Sharma said the air quality in Morgantown Thursday registered above 215 on the Air Quality Index — a level he said is very severe, offering comparison.

“Anytime you’re above 200 it’s almost equal to smoking half a pack of cigarettes a day,” Sharma said. “You can imagine that if people are susceptible in the areas that are already inflamed, and you light up one cigarette after the other, by the end of half a pack a day, your lungs would be severely inflamed. You would definitely be looking at some kind of an exacerbation in your underlying disease.”

Sharma suggests if the air quality is severe, people who are susceptible should consider enjoying the indoors, people who work outside should limit their hours and all should avoid – or limit – outdoor exertional activity.

“Anytime you do a very exertional activity, you have to take very deep breaths,” Sharma said. “That means that many of these particles can go very deep down inside your lungs and settle in your alveoli or have a spillover effect. So if you’re jogging, turn it into walking. If you are spending four hours outdoors, spend only two hours.”

Original Story

With numerous West Virginia area air quality levels in the unhealthy range due to smoke from Canadian wildfires, medical experts are advising health precautions for both the general public and those at greater risk.

Dr. Michael Kilkenny, CEO and health officer for the Cabell-Huntington Health Department, said this wildfire smoke contains a number of hazardous small particles and chemical contaminants. 

“You’re having air quality that is not only going to potentially cause problems for people who have underlying conditions like asthma or COPD,” Kilkenny said. “It’s also going to be unpleasant for some members of the general public who may just find themselves getting a little bit congested or coughing from it.”

Kilkenny said there are short-term and long-term effects in terms of people at risk. 

“People are at risk of having a short-term reaction to this,” Kilkenny said. “Like coughing, shortness of breath, nasal congestion or allergy symptoms – those that are going outside and feeling worse, would be those people who are more elderly and who have respiratory or even a chronic cardiovascular disease. It can be hard for people with asthma and younger people, especially infants.”

Kilkenny suggested those with lung disease or sensitivities to stay inside and set your air conditioning on recirculation mode to lessen bringing these outside smoke particles into your living quarters.

He said the general public should use common sense.

“Don’t be doing really strenuous exercise or long-term working outdoors in this environment if you can help it,” he said. “The harder you’re breathing, the more you’re going to breathe this. If you are outside, you want to avoid really strenuous work, exercising. Today might not be a good day for you to go for a run outside.”

Kilkenny said if you don’t have air conditioning, he recommends avoiding strong exposure to this smoky air by not “getting really worked up and breathing hard.”

He said there’s also the potential for long-term effects as very small smoke particles get deep into the lungs and become a risk for long-term health issues.

“Something that we’re going to worry about, oh well, I was out for an hour today,” he said. “But in terms of how many times in my life, am I going to be exposed to this, for how many days – then we’re talking about trying to keep young children from really getting a lot of exposure to this kind of smoke. Parents should watch after the long-term effect on their children as far as how much they’re exposed to this.”