Visibility Guide to Smoke and Air Quality Now Available

RALEIGH

With wildfires burning across Western North Carolina, state air quality officials are distributing a visibility guide for assessing health risks from smoke due to wildfires.

Smoke from wildfires periodically causes locally unhealthy air quality in North Carolina, depending on winds, moisture levels and other weather factors. The N.C. Division of Air Quality or DAQ has a network of monitors that have measured unhealthy levels of particle pollution at some locations, but those monitors are not always situated where smoke is heaviest.

"Your own observations will be the best guide for determining how the smoke is affecting air quality in your area," DAQ Deputy Director Mike Abraczinskas said. "If you can see heavy haze and smell smoke, then air quality is not good and you should limit your outdoor activities. This is particularly important for sensitive groups - that is, children, older adults, people with heart and respiratory problems, and those who work and exercise outside for extended times."

The Division of Air Quality's visibility guide to smoke shows what levels of air pollution are likely based on visibility ranges. For example, if visibility is less than 1 mile due to smoke, then air quality probably is in the Code Purple or very unhealthy range. If visibility is from 3 to 5 miles, then air quality probably is in the Code Red or unhealthy range. Visibility information can be obtained from local airports or the National Weather Service, http://www.weather.gov/gsp/.

About a dozen wildfires currently are burning in Western North Carolina, covering more than 19,000 acres of forests since last week. Smoke from the fires will drift with the wind, and areas downwind will experience the worst air pollution.

State and local officials issue daily air quality forecasts for particle pollution year-round, and the highest levels typically occur in areas around wildfires.  Today’s forecast calls for Code Red conditions, or unhealthy for everyone, in the far southwestern part of North Carolina. Citizens can find the daily air forecasts at the DAQ website, www.ncair.org or download a free cell phone app by searching for EPA AirNow.

Some of the highest particle pollution levels that DAQ has ever measured were in smoke plumes from wildfires - reaching Code Purple, or very unhealthy, at times in areas close to the fires. The highest particle concentrations have tended to occur during the evening and early morning hours. Particles can be harmful to breathe and contribute to haze and other air quality problems.

High particle levels can impair breathing and aggravate symptoms in people with heart and respiratory problems, and irritate the lungs in healthy individuals. People with chronic lung and heart ailments as well as children and older adults should reduce physical exertion and outdoor activity.

Fine particles can penetrate deeply into the lungs and be absorbed into the bloodstream, causing or aggravating heart and lung diseases. Symptoms of exposure to high particle levels include: irritation of the eyes, nose and throat; coughing; phlegm; chest pain or tightness; shortness of breath and asthma attacks.

More information on air quality in North Carolina can be found at the DAQ website, www.ncair.org. More information on the health effects of smoke can be found at the AirNow website. https://www.airnow.gov/index.cfm?action=topics.smoke_events.

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