What's in wildfire smoke and how experts say you can protect yourself

Hazy Boise skyline
Posted at 6:20 PM, Aug 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-17 08:50:30-04

BOISE, Idaho — Wildfire smoke makes up nearly half of the annual air pollution across the west and can have dangerous health impacts.

Particulate matter (PM) is also known as "particle pollution." Particulate matter is defined as "a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets found in the air. Some particles, such as dust, dirt, soot, or smoke, are large or dark enough to be seen with the naked eye," according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

"Particulate matter, it’s just one constituent or one type of chemical in wildfire smoke," said Luke Montrose, the assistant professor of Public Health and Population Science at Boise State University.

Montrose said like other air pollutants, wildfire smoke has thousands of different individual chemicals but particulate matter makes up the most mass in smoke, which is why experts use PM to measure the amount of smoke in the atmosphere at any given time.

Particulate matter is measured in different size fractions. On August 16th, 2021, PM was measured at 2.5.

Montrose said from 2.5 to 10, the body's natural defense system can "scrub away" the particles. However, particles smaller than 2.5 are considered "fine" and much more hazardous to overall health.

Particulate matter can vary from region to region which is why it's important to check the air quality in your city daily. You can also research masks like N-95's that specialize in filtering out fine particles.