You’ve probably heard of massive blazes burning across vast swathes of the Amazon rainforests in Brazil and beyond. In August alone, 26,000 individual fires have been recorded, engulfing the equivalent of the U.S. East Coast in flames. These tens of thousands of individual fires burning has ignited renewed discussions of the major impact that these fires will have on climate change.
There’s no doubt that the destruction of the Amazon rainforests will have far-reaching consequences for years to come. The Amazon, home to 10% of the world’s biodiversity and at least 15% of all its fresh water, has long been an enormously important feature of the planet’s ability to capture harmful carbon from the atmosphere and produce a large volume of the earth’s oxygen supply.1 For this reason, some have labeled the Amazon rainforests the "earth's lungs."
Amazon Rainforest City Stations
City Stations near the Amazon Rainforest
But there’s a much more immediate toxic impact that the wildfire smoke from these fires has on every single person on Earth, no matter their proximity to the fires: air pollution – especially the particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns (PM2.5) produced by the wildfires.2
So even though Brazil’s fires may be burning thousands of miles away from you, you may be breathing air that’s contaminated by the Amazon wildfires. Read on to learn why and how to protect yourself from the health impacts of wildfire smoke.
How far does wildfire smoke travel?
It’s easy to think that the Amazon fires are Brazil’s problem – but as with any other wildfire, their smoke travels globally. Consider that wildfire air pollution from these fires can travel as far away Asia on the other side of the world.
And when you add up the smoke produced by the over 87,000 fires recorded in Brazil in 2019, no one can afford to ignore the air quality impact that sheer volume of smoke can have.3
This impact is due to a combination of the physics of wildfire smoke itself and of wind currents that can carry air pollution across the globe. With the Amazon fires, the smoke rising from vast burning areas had already covered hundreds of thousands of square miles from the west coasts of South America to Papua New Guinea and Australia, over 11,000 miles away, within mere days.
Here’s how that happens – and why you may be breathing that smoke as you read this:
- Smoke rises miles into the air due to a mixture of intense heat from flames and conditions in the atmosphere like sunlight, cloud cover, and wind speeds.
- Global wind currents blow smoke for hundreds of miles across the upper atmosphere and spread airborne pollutants for hundreds of miles in every direction. In the case of the Amazon fires, the westward-blowing currents along the equator can take the smoke as far west as Australia, China, and Indonesia. Then, the smoke is blown northward by currents near Japan, and then eastward by north Pacific currents that bring that same smoke all the way to the United States, Canada, and Central America.
- Pollutants in the upper atmosphere react with heat from sunlight and lower-lying pollutants in major urban areas. Regions that produce a lot of industrial and traffic pollution are especially vulnerable to the added pollution that smoke can bring to the area – not only are nearby major urban areas like São Paulo in Brazil are directly affected by Amazon rainforest fires, but cities as far-flung as Mexico City, and as far north as Alaska and eastern Russia, were affected mere days after the fires started. And many more cities in North America will be impacted in the coming months.
How to protect yourself from wildfire smoke
Wildfire smoke can be long-lasting and harmful to more than just your lungs – even just brief exposure can lead to heart attacks, arrhythmia, and respiratory infections.4 And research shows that wildfire seasons around the world are getting longer – here’s what you can do to make sure you’re protected:
- Monitor your local air quality. Sure, fires may be burning hundreds or thousands of miles away – but that doesn’t mean you can’t be affected. In the hours or days following a wildfire, use an air quality monitor, such as the AirVisual® Pro, to see your current air quality and compare it to both historical and forecast data. Using an air quality monitor to view your daily air quality patterns can help you learn to discern any major changes that occur due to fires or increased levels of local pollutants like PM2.5 from traffic or industrial emissions.
- Watch worldwide air quality maps closely. In addition to monitoring your own local air quality, keeping up with world air quality trends can help you prepare for any events that may impact your air quality at home. Visit the AirVisual Earth page for a live air quality map that also shows how wind currents may carry the smoke beyond its source.
- Create a clean air safe zone indoors. When wildfire smoke is affecting your local air quality, close all your doors and windows to keep smoke from seeping in. Make sure to close the outdoor air intake on your HVAC system so that polluted outdoor air isn’t pulled into your indoor recirculated air. Use an indoor air purifier that can remove any wildfire smoke particles and gases that do seep in. The HealthPro® Plus is an excellent air purifier for wildfire smoke because it removes all types of airborne wildfire pollutants, including PM2.5, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and thousands of other dangerous compounds.
- Avoid going outdoors. Wildfire smoke can linger in your local air for days, weeks, or even months. Try to limit your time spent outdoors to only essential activities, such as commuting or buying food and supplies. If you're particularly sensitive to poor air quality, this is an especially important step to take.
- Wear an air pollution protection mask. If you must go outside, a simple dust mask or medical mask won’t do against wildfire smoke – they do nothing to filter out the tiniest and most harmful particles in smoke. Make sure you use a mask that’s at least certified KN95 or N95, such as the IQAir® Mask. These masks filter out PM2.5 found in dense concentrations in wildfire smoke, and they’re designed for long-term use by reducing moisture and CO2 buildup inside the mask while also applying little pressure to the face and ears.
- Reduce indoor sources of air pollution. Don’t do anything that’ll add more airborne pollutants. Avoid activities that further pollute the indoor air. Avoid burning candles, using the fireplace, or even vacuuming (unless you own a high-performance HEPA vacuum cleaner). All of these can otherwise become additional sources of indoor air pollutants.
IQAir is a Swiss-based air quality technology company that since 1963 empowers individuals, organizations and communities to breathe cleaner air through information, collaboration and technology solutions.