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Living with Parkinson's in the NW: How to Plan for Wildfire Smoke

Tuesday July 09, 2019

 

In face of wildfires and smoke events, NW Parkinson's would like to provide preventative resources for folks impacted by Parkinson's in the Northwest.

Dr. Sverre Vedal is professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences at the University of Washington School of Public Health, whose research interests include community air pollution and occupational lung disease. Learn more about Dr. Vedal here.

Bette Jane Camp, NW Parkinson's Programs & Communications Coordinator, met with Dr. Sverre Vedal at the University of Washington to learn what we can do to prevent, minimize, and cope with the health effects of wildfire smoke.

 

______________________________________________________________

 

Bette Jane Camp

Dr. Sverre Vedal

 

 

Are you familiar with Parkinson's?

Yes. I'm a pulmonary doctor, and went through internal medicine. My father-in-law had Parkinson's, and I've had many patients with it, too.

 

What would you recommend for someone who's living with a weather forecast of smoke, or poor air quality, due to wildfires?

To start, there are a number of online resources that show you spatial distribution of smoke plumes. One great site that EPA has is a Wildfire Toolbox, in that they have all sort of great resources for providers and patients alike. There is an EPA app called Smoke Sense that does a really nice job in telling current smoke conditions, the levels they're at, and the forecast for the next few days.

 

Click here to view the EPA's Wildfire Toolbox website. | Click here to download the Smoke Sense app.

 

How do you protect yourself from smoke exposure?

The degree of protection is very individual—so it depends on the person. Even “healthy” people vary a lot in terms of their reaction to smoke. Some have absolutely no irritant symptoms, some can have all sorts. Then there are people we consider to be especially susceptible, people with lung diseases of various kinds, particularly asthma, and people who have cardiovascular disease, which is very common, especially as people get older.

   

     Smoke Sensitivity 

Oftentimes, people won't know whether they're sensitive to smoke or not. They could have issues that might be subclinical, or they're not aware of them.

  • Smoke Sense allows people to actually input their symptoms, and the app compiles data about location and the effects people are experience. So it provides information that builds with every use. Everyone's contributing data.

Having decided that you should be doing something [about smoke], the first thing that's advised is to stay indoors.

Now, that assumes that doors and windows are closed and there's some sort of ventilation. And that people won't then suffer some sort of heat related effects.

  • It is advisable to stay indoors, doors and windows closed, if you do have AC. When running AC, it should be set on the recirculation mode so it's not bringing in air from outside.

   

     Reducing Activity

Another issue is level of activity, or exercise. It's well know that when you exercise you breathe more, take bigger breaths, and therefore a greater dose of what's there, so it's always advised to stay indoors and limit the level of activity.

  • As public health people those are sort of things we don't advise lightly because you know we'd rather have people out being active, but [in the case of wildfire smoke] it makes more sense to stay indoors and less active.

 

     Air Cleaners

The other issues have to do with what you're breathing. It's been well documented that air cleaners work. In other settings as well as wildfires, they've proven to actually significantly drop the particle concentration indoors.

  • It's always advised that air cleaners be suited to the size of the room or the area they're being used for cleaning. But even when they're suboptimal, they [make a difference] in improving indoor air quality. And people have choices about what to do: they can get small, portable ones that fit in a room—that's probably most practical.
  • The ones that are recommended contain a high efficiency particle filter, a HEPA filter. [This applies when] most of the hazard from wildfire smoke comes from particles, which is likely.

 

     Planning Ahead

Those who know that wildfire smoke is likely need to be prepared ahead of time, rather than get these things at the last minute when they're in short supply and difficult to get.

It's best to make plans: air cleaners are a fairly cost-effective approach. People that have AC can also put in HEPA filters, they're probably already in the unit depending. Or in the furnace where if there's central AC you can put them in the same way. You can get double protection if you use air cleaners as well.

Here in [western WA], AC units aren't all that common. Mostly it's air cleaners that are most practical. Nearing the last resort would be masks.

 

     Masks

They also work—if they fit.

  • Paper, surgical, and dusk masks aren't of any use. So they have to be a certain type that you can get at hardware stores: the M95 or P100 type of masks. They all work as long as they fit.
  • A good test is to try it on, take in a breath, and see if the mask sucks in. If they do, there's at least some evidences showing they then [protect]. People who have beards they never fit, children they never work because the masks aren't sized for children.
  • You can't wear them for an extended period of time, because there's more resistance to breathing which requires more work, more sweat. But sometimes it's not necessary for too long—they're the backup if for some reason you can't avoid being exposed to smoke.

 

     Relocating 

There have been UW studies showing that both air cleaners and masks work in decreasing exposure and minimizing health impacts. Probably the last resort is actually moving.

  • People go to friends or relatives who have AC, or move to a clean room you can isolate. Then there's been a lot of talk where at some point there should be evacuations. It's definitely been seriously entertained in California and such places.

 

People with Parkinson's tend to be less mobile and have fewer options. One would focus on whatever they can do in their own home to minimize exposure. If they're in a communal living facility, then there's a good chance AC is provided, versus a single-family dwelling.

It's mostly going to come down to planning for smoke events in the summer, to start thinking ahead: if you don't have AC, consider an air cleaner, and even the availability of an appropriate mask. Staying indoors and reducing activity is the first line of defense.

 

Reducing exercise makes sense; it's a sad irony that exercise is the go-to treatment for Parkinson's!

Yeah, that's true. Well if there is a nice thing about wildfire smoke incidents it's that they don't generally last too long. It's definitely not a chronic prescription of “don't exercise”! (laughs).

 

Are wildfires and smoke events increasing?

Oh, there's no question about it. They were not very common [until recently]—you can just look at the last two years. There's no question that the number of wildfires has increased around [the Northwest], and no reason to suspect that will be different as time goes on. I think it's something we should be prepared for; I would be surprised if we didn't have another smoky summer like we did last year. 

 

How do you feel about that? Are you able to stay detached or objective?

To the extent that it's our fault, it's a tragedy; to the extent that climate change is involved in increasing the frequency. It's hard to be detached about that. But as a doctor I can be objective—it comes with the territory. 

-

Wildfire health impacts and related strategies vary from person to person—just like life with Parkinson's. The information posted here by www.nwpf.org is not to be considered medical advice and is not intended to replace direct consultation with a qualified medical professional.

_____________________________________________

Further resources:

Safely Northwest: links to health & safety resources by state
News & Updates on Wildlfire Smoke in Canada

Bette Jane Camp
NWPF Blogger

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