Air pollution incidents and accidents can occur anywhere at any time and if they do, how prepared are you and what should you do to limit any danger and toxicity?
You are more vulnerable if you live or work in an urban area especially those areas with large industrial facilities. Air pollution affects everyone to some extent, but it is particularly harmful to children (who tend to be more active outdoors and whose lungs are still developing) and to the elderly (especially sufferers from heart or lung disease).
But what are you supposed to do if you encounter or experience an air pollution incident?
The usual answer from local authorities is:
"To protect yourself and your family. If you're in a car, close the windows and air vents in order to limit your exposure to the air pollution. Similarly, close windows and cover air vents at home or in the office. The best course of action may be to leave the affected area for a few hours if possible."
But how helpful is that advice?
Many factors play a role in outdoor air quality – even natural phenomena like volcanic eruptions, wind currents and trees - but it is human activities that are the modern and even preventable problem that add pollutants into the air. Consider factories and power plants pumping out smoke and chemicals, and tractors on farms blowing up dust clouds and spreading toxic chemicals too.
While nuclear power stations can run the risk of causing radioactive fall out (an extreme hazard in a league all of its own), air pollution can take the form of smoke from fires in buildings, runaway fires in forests, canyons and other places or from industrial type chimney stacks.
Smoke consists of particles plus other gaseous air pollutants such as hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, and carbon monoxide
Exposure to all these air pollutants can cause health effects or aggravate existing health conditions. While you might be in danger of the fire itself, you can also suffer from the harmful effects of smoke, ash, and dust particles. It can be hard to tell where ash or soot from a wildfire will go, or how winds will affect the level of dust particles in the air.
Here is some advice:
Once the danger has passed but while there is still some smoke residue, you can follow these steps:
- If you smell smoke, or see a lot of particles and ash in the air, use common sense and limit time spent outdoors.
- If outdoor air is bad, try to keep indoor air as clean as possible by keeping windows and doors closed — unless it's extremely hot. Obviously you would not add to the smoke hazard by lighting anything in the home that could produce additional smoke.
- If you have an air conditioner, run it with the fresh air intake closed and the filter clean. If you have a "whole house fan" turn it off when the air quality is poor, unless it's extremely hot.
- If you have symptoms of lung or heart disease that may be related to exposure to smoke or particles, call your doctor.
- When smoke is heavy for a prolonged period of time, fine particles can build up indoors even though you may not be able to see them. If you have heart or lung disease, are an older adult or have young children, consider leaving the area.
- Any pet animals or birds are equally at risk and need to be kept safe too. Be sure to clean any ash off pets.
- If ash is falling, avoid skin contact with ash, avoid stirring up particles through clean up activities, and avoid exercising outdoors in areas with large amounts of ash.
- When air quality improves, air out your home but close windows and doors again if air quality worsens.
- Avoid strenuous activity indoors when air quality is poor. Drink plenty of fluids.
- Minimize driving, and when you do drive, use the "recirculate" option on your vehicle's air system, not forgetting to air out your vehicle regularly.
- If air quality is poor for a prolonged period, consider going somewhere nearby where the air is cleaner for several hours, even if you can't leave your home for longer.
Be aware that when buildings burn, asbestos fibers from building materials may become airborne, creating a potentially hazardous situation. Clean up can make conditions worse if not done properly. Handling materials that contain asbestos can be hazardous to your health and should only be carried out by experts.
But for general ash clean up, remember to:
- Avoid any skin contact with the ash by wearing gloves and long-sleeved shirts.
- Use damp cloths, spray areas lightly with water and direct ash-filled water to ground areas but away from the run off system. Try to use the minimum amount of water necessary to avoid overtaxing such run off systems.
- Use vacuum cleaners with HEPA filters while sweeping carefully with a broom.
- Have your vehicle cleaned at a professional car wash facility.
- Wash off any outside toys.
Preferably, use a high-quality shop or industrial vacuum outfitted with a high-efficiency particulate filter and a disposable collection filter bag. It might be worth while hiring one for a day. Ash can be bagged and put into trash cans, so it will not be stirred up again into the air. Special attachments can be used to clean ash from gutters, so that it will not blow back over outdoor spaces. Such attachments and disposable bags are available from most hardware stores.
Two words of warning include NOT allowing children to play in any ash and NOT using a leaf blower when clearing up ash.
There are also ways to avoid air pollution in the first place
We are all entitled to live in a safe and environmentally friendly neighborhood that is as free of outdoor pollution as possible.
- By choosing motor vehicles that reduce such pollution with low or zero carbon emissions. They use an alternative fuel consumption to petrol or diesel and such vehicles are called green vehicles.
- By turning off all unnecessary electric lighting and appliances to help lessen the amount of electricity being generated and in turn the fossil fuels polluting the air.
- By recycling, reusing and rethinking those material goods that you need so that they do not always have to be replaced with brand new.
- By helping to ensure any new industries in your area are eco friendly and by supporting new legislation to clamp down on the old type of industries that are not keeping up with old technology.
- By growing lots of different types of plants to avoid the air pollution created by the carbon dioxide and many gases and encouraging others to do the same.
- By being aware that the smoking of cigarettes also causes air pollution.