keep kids safe from wildfire smoke
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Save the children

How to protect yourself and your family from wildfire smoke

Katie Overmonds
June 9, 2023

The signs of summer are all around us. Last week, parents at one east coast daycare got a cheerful note to send bathing suits and sunscreen in their kids’ backpacks. 

Yesterday, those colorful ensembles sat dormant in the cubbies outside the preschool room. A pair of Batman-adorned water shoes and an orange pair of swim trunks with dinosaurs on them hung expectantly. 

Instead, the two and three year old's were tucked inside, playing hide and seek in the nap zone and singing alphabet songs in the hallway. When some of the kids ran excitedly to the door of the preschool’s rooftop play place, they were gently redirected. 

For the third day in a row, the energetic early childhood educators got creative with ways to keep the gaggle of kids entertained inside, in the hallways I have walked dozens of times: our preschooler is one of them. 

A visual representation of the impact of wildfire smoke on the environment.

The air quality health index in our neighborhood, and many across swaths of North America this week hit “high risk” levels, the sky outdoors now threatening millions with the dangers of smoke inhalation: exacerbating health conditions like asthma and reducing lung function in ways that can worsen existing respiratory problems and even heart disease. 

Canada’s wildfires and the smoke across much of North America this week have raised alarm bells for the health of the planet and its citizens. We’re seeing growing calls for US President Biden to unlock broad powers to fight climate change, as scientists say global warming is making wildfires much worse.

As any parent knows, keeping kids indoors for one reason or another isn’t new. On days when the temperature spikes or the thunderstorms are threatening, we make other plans. 

“When it’s rainy out, we’re out in rain suits for the full hour,” said the supervisor of a Toronto-based daycare. “Heat alerts, we do go out sometimes — sprinklers, water play, sponges.”

“But air,” she said. “We can’t fix the air.”

To me, and likely many worried parents dealing with similar situations this week, the uncertain future of our climate and the impact it will have on our kids sits heavier than the smoke outside our front doors. 

Existential fears aside, you may (like me) be wondering, how can I protect myself and my family during times of poor air quality? 

While bad air isn’t good for anyone, it is especially harmful to young kids whose lungs are still developing, pregnant women, folks who already have breathing issues and the elderly.

How to protect yourself and your family from wildfire smoke

  1. Stay informed: Stay updated on wildfire situations in your area and keep an eye out for official announcements and evacuation orders.
  1. Get an indoor air quality monitor: Just a few months back, we talked about the recent research highlighting the risk of gas stoves. Wildfire smoke, while different, can have the same effect at even small levels of exposure. It’s helpful to understand the risks in your own home. Some IAQ monitors to check out: 
  1. Create a clean indoor environment: Ensure that the indoor air quality of your home is as clean as possible. Keep windows and doors closed to prevent smoke from entering. Use air purifiers with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters to remove fine particles from the air. If necessary, consider using a damp cloth to seal gaps around windows and doors to minimize smoke infiltration.

Think of yourself a DIY’er, or perhaps just trying to stick to a budget? Consider building your own air purification system, called the Corsi–Rosenthal Cube, a do-it-yourself air purifier that can be built comparatively inexpensively.

Dense clouds of wildfire smoke covering the sky.
  1. Limit outdoor activities: When wildfire smoke is present, it is wise to reduce your time spent outdoors, especially during peak periods of smoke concentration. Physical activities that cause heavy breathing, such as jogging or cycling, should be avoided. If you must be outside, consider wearing a mask that provides protection against fine particles, like an N95 respirator or a mask labeled "N95," "N99," or "P100."
  1. Improve indoor air quality: In addition to using air purifiers, there are other ways to improve the indoor air quality during wildfire events. Avoid smoking or burning candles, as these can contribute to indoor pollution. Refrain from using products that release smoke or particles into the air, such as aerosol sprays, incense, or certain cleaning products.
  1. Stay hydrated: Wildfire smoke can cause respiratory irritation and dehydration. Drink plenty of water to keep yourself hydrated and help alleviate any potential discomfort caused by the smoke.
  1. Seek medical advice: If you experience severe symptoms like difficulty breathing, chest pain, or persistent coughing, seek medical assistance immediately. Individuals with pre-existing respiratory conditions, the elderly, pregnant women, and young children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of wildfire smoke and should take extra precautions.
The widespread effects of wildfire smoke in the atmosphere.

One step further: How to take meaningful action on climate change

Oftentimes on this blog, you’ll see tips from us about how to take small steps to ‘green’ your day-to-day life (and usually save money at the same time!) but this week’s events are a stark reminder that we can, and must, do more. 

Here are some tangible ways to channel some of that climate anxiety and effect real change to how our country addresses the growing threat to our families and our kids. 

  1. Stay informed and engage: To make a difference, start by educating yourself about climate change policies, both at the local and national levels. Stay informed about proposed legislation, international agreements, and political candidates' stances on climate issues. Engage with reputable climate-focused organizations, attend public meetings, and join community forums to learn and discuss climate policies.
  1. Vote for climate leaders: One of the most impactful political actions is exercising your right to vote. Research candidates thoroughly, paying close attention to their climate change agendas. Support and vote for leaders who prioritize ambitious climate policies, renewable energy development, emissions reduction targets, and sustainable practices. Your vote can shape the direction of climate policy and empower politicians to take bolder action.
  1. Communicate with elected officials: Engage in direct dialogue with your elected officials, conveying your concerns and expectations regarding climate change. Write letters, make phone calls, or schedule meetings to discuss the urgent need for robust climate policies. Share personal stories, scientific evidence, and the economic benefits of addressing climate change. Encourage lawmakers to support legislation that promotes renewable energy, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and builds climate resilience.
  1. Support climate advocacy organizations: Join forces with local, national, or international climate advocacy organizations. These groups work tirelessly to promote climate-friendly policies, mobilize public support, and influence decision-makers. Contribute your time, resources, or skills to support their campaigns, initiatives, and lobbying efforts. By amplifying their reach and impact, you can help drive the momentum for climate action.
  1. Run for office or support climate champions: Consider stepping into the political arena yourself or supporting candidates who prioritize climate change. Running for office at any level allows you to shape policy directly. If running isn't feasible, actively support climate champions by volunteering for their campaigns, making financial contributions, or engaging in grassroots efforts. Help amplify their voices and build a coalition dedicated to climate action.
  1. Collaborate and mobilize: Climate change requires collaboration among individuals, communities, and organizations. Connect with like-minded individuals, both online and offline, to foster collective action. Engage with climate justice movements, participate in peaceful protests, and support initiatives that promote environmental equity. Mobilize your networks, organize climate-focused events, and collaborate with community leaders to drive local climate action plans.

Kids are meant to be outdoors. It’s up to us to make sure that’s possible. 

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