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Breathe Easy This Weekend

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Photo by slworking2 | Flickr

Whether you're planning a quick getaway or staying close to home this long weekend, you may be wondering, as you gaze out into the gray, hazy abyss from the wildfires, "just how safe is it to breathe?"

We don't recommend stopping altogether, but depending on where you live, you might think twice about spending prolonged periods of time gulping down that cloudy fumage.

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"We've seen a gradual improvement of the air quality since last weekend," said Sam Atwood, spokesman for the south coast Air Quality Management district. But, he says, the forecast for the weekend is "calling for air quality across the region to be in the moderate to unhealthy for sensitive groups range." And in the foothills of the San Gabriel Valley and San Fernando Valley, closest to the Station Fire, air quality for the weekend is forecast to be unhealthy for everybody (yes, including you).

So what, exactly, is the danger of the smoke? Obviously it doesn't look like anything you want to inhale too heartily - images of smoker's lungs from high school-era fear-mongering assemblies spring to mind - but what's the real risk?

According to Atwood, smoke from the wildfires contains "thousands of chemical compounds," but the main concern is something called fine particulates, or PM2.5 (PM stands for particulate matter). With a diameter of 2.5 or less, they are too small to be seen by the naked eye, but can lodge in the lungs and even get into the bloodstream. And, you know what they say about small particulates - the smaller the diameter, the more dangerous to the system.

"[They] can cause irritation," said Atwood, "and we've seen in studies conducted after the fires that there has been a significant increase in hospital admissions for asthma and emphysema." In more severe cases, they can cause irregular heartbeats, nonfatal heart attacks, and even chronic bronchitis.

You might be tempted, at this point, to simply slap on a face mask a la residents of Hong Kong during the SARS outbreak. But you'd be giving yourself nothing more than a false sense of security. Masks, it turns out, do absolutely nothing to prevent those particles from making their devious little way into your lungs. If you insist on living in the unhealthy parts of the city and going outside, you're better off investing in an N95 or P100 respirator, which are fitted masks with better filters, and can be purchased at any home improvement store.

What's that you say? You don't want to spend the weekend looking like something out of a hardcore bondage porn? Well, fine. LA County Department of Public Health has some other suggestions, too (and we paraphrase):

  • Avoid excessive outdoor exercise in areas that have been deemed unhealthy for everyone. (San Gabriel Valley and San Fernando Valley)
  • Don’t let children, the elderly or those with asthma, heart or respiratory problems spend excessive amounts of time outside.
  • Don’t use a fireplace, and if you’re going to make a bonfire, just know that you are single-handedly worsening quality of life for the infirm.
  • Keep windows closed, and avoid air conditioners that re-circulate air from outside.
  • The following symptoms could be signs of something more serious. If you have them, get thee to a hospital: "severe coughing, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, wheezing, chest tightness or pain, palpitations, nausea or unusual fatigue or lightheadedness."

For more safety tips, visit the LA County Public Health website.