Air Pollution from Wildfires

Wildfires often occur in bogs and forest areas during very hot weather.  

The general health advice is to stay out of the smoke if possible, as it is an irritant and can commonly make both the eyes and throat sore in addition to other health effects such as breathing problems. 

 Provided that there is no direct risk from the fire itself, general public health advice is:

  • During episodes with high air pollution from the wildfire smoke, people – particularly those at increased risk (e.g. children, elderly, and pregnant women; people with existing medical conditions such as asthma, other respiratory diseases and cardiovascular diseases; and smokers) – should stay indoors
  • Keep windows closed during episodes of high air pollution.  Nevertheless, try also to consider the suggestions on keeping homes cool during periods of high temperature
  • Reduce other sources of indoor air pollution, such as smoking cigarettes, using propane gas or wood-burning stoves, spraying aerosol products, and frying or grilling food
  • If people in the immediate area of fire (particularly those most at risk as above) experience any symptoms or have concerns, they should reduce their level of activity and seek access to prompt healthcare advice; and
  • Throughout the period of the fire, monitor and follow the recommendations of the local authorities and health services

Why do people need to consider COVID-19 along with wildfire smoke?

  • Wildfires in summer 2021 are occurring at the same time as wave 4 of the COVID-19 pandemic in Ireland.
  • Wildfire smoke is a complex mixture of air pollutants that are harmful to human health.
  • Exposure to air pollutants in wildfire smoke can irritate the lungs, cause inflammation, alter immune function, and increase susceptibility to respiratory infections, likely including COVID-19.
  • Recent scientific publications suggest that air pollutant exposure worsens COVID-19 symptoms and outcomes. 

Who is most at risk from wildfire smoke?

Populations known to be vulnerable to wildfire smoke exposures include:

  • Children less than 18 years
  • Adults age 65 years or older
  • Pregnant people
  • People with chronic health conditions such as heart or lung disease, including asthma and diabetes
  • Outdoor workers
  • People of low socioeconomic status, including those who are homeless and with limited access to medical care
     

Who else is at risk from wildfire smoke during the COVID-19 pandemic?

The overlap of the COVID-19 pandemic with wildfire season in Ireland complicates public health response to wildfire smoke. Persons who are either susceptible to or affected by COVID-19 may have health conditions that also make them vulnerable to wildfire smoke exposure. Persons who might also be at risk from wildfire smoke because of COVID-19 include:

  • Those who are immunocompromised or taking drugs that suppress the immune system
  • Those with or recovering from COVID-19

Because of compromised heart and lung function due to COVID-19, they may be at increased risk of health effects from exposure to wildfire smoke.
 

Respiratory symptoms such as dry cough, sore throat, and difficulty breathing are common to both wildfire smoke exposure and COVID-19.

 How are symptoms from wildfire smoke exposure different from symptoms of COVID-19?

Information on symptoms of COVID-19 is available. If you are experiencing symptoms unrelated to smoke exposure such as, fever or chills, muscle or body aches, diarrhoea, link with your healthcare provider (general practitioner, out of hours service,emergency department).
If you have questions after reviewing the HSELive page, you should contact a healthcare provider.
If you are experiencing severe symptoms, such as difficulty breathing or chest pain, you should seek prompt medical attention by calling 112, 999, or calling ahead to the nearest emergency facility.
 

Where can I find information about current air quality and COVID-19 in my area?

Use the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Air Quality Index for Health (AQIH) to evaluate local and regional air quality conditions.

Visit Ireland’s COVID-19 Data Hub for more information about COVID-19.

 What actions can I take to minimize potential health impacts from wildfire smoke?

Understand that your planning may be different this year because of the need to protect yourself and others from COVID-19.
The best way to protect against the potentially harmful effects of wildfire smoke is to reduce wildfire smoke exposure.

  • While social distancing guidelines are in place, finding cleaner air might be challenging if public facilities such as libraries, community centres, and shopping centres are closed or have limited capacity.

Avoid activities that create more indoor and outdoor air pollution, such as frying foods, sweeping, vacuuming, and using gas-powered appliances.
Limit outdoor exercise when it is smoky outside or choose lower-intensity activities to reduce smoke exposure.

Can masks and face coverings reduce wildfire smoke exposure?

Although FFP2/3 masks provide protection from wildfire smoke, they might be in short supply as frontline healthcare workers use them during the pandemic.
Cloth face coverings that are used to slow the spread of COVID-19 offer little protection against harmful air pollutants in wildfire smoke because these coverings do not capture most small particles in smoke.

Updated 20/7/2021.