Officials issue air pollution advisory due to wildfire smoke

Published 10:00 pm Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Particle pollution can irritate, impair breathing

COLUMBUS – Due to the wildfires burning across western North Carolina, air quality officials have issued an advisory for air pollution on Monday and Tuesday as smoke covers the region, making it difficult to breathe.

The Party Rock fire just north of Lake Lure has already burned approximately 4,480 acres since it began on Nov. 5 and is only 19 percent contained as of Wednesday afternoon, according to the North Carolina Forest Service. Smoke from that fire has been blown into Polk County and points south, creating a blanket of haze.

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North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality media official Tom Mather said about 15 wildfires are currently burning across 44,000 acres of land in western North Carolina.

“Residents throughout the area could be exposed to Code Red (unhealthy) or Code Purple (very unhealthy) levels of particle pollution,” Mather said in a press release.

Mather added “high particle levels” of pollution could impair breathing and aggravate symptoms in people with respiratory problems and irritate the lungs.

“The forecast means everyone in these areas should avoid or reduce prolonged or heavy exertion outdoors, and sensitive groups should avoid any activity outside,” Mather said. “Sensitive groups include the elderly, children, people who work or exercise outdoors, and those with heart conditions and respiratory ailments such as asthma, bronchitis and emphysema.”

Gerald Tary is a respiratory therapist with St. Luke’s Hospital in Columbus and said a high level of carbon monoxide can be damaging to the lungs. Tary said he used to be a volunteer firefighter many years ago.

“The cost environmentally, as well as the properties, is going to take decades to replenish,” Tary said.

Breathing in something that is poisonous, according to Tary, can cause serious problems in the future. He added hemoglobin carries oxygen around the body, and hemoglobin will do the same with the carbon monoxide that is inhaled by individuals outside.

“The problem is when you’re breathing that in, it’s going into the system and everything that goes into the lungs gets picked up by your hemoglobin,” Tary said. “When you breathe in the poison, which is what is happening with these fires as it is produced by the flames and the smoke to make carbon monoxide, it’s being taken into the lungs and then into the system, which is robbing your body of oxygen that it needs to survive.”

Tary added pollution is lighter than oxygen, which means it floats in the air and can travel faster when there are multiple fires in the area.

“With situations like that, with a compromised heart and/or lungs, you put that poison into your system,” Tary said, “and deprive yourself of oxygen, which means your heart has to put in a greater workload because it has to pump harder to get the oxygen that it is not getting.”

Individuals with bronchitis, emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD) or cystic fibrosis, according to Tary, already have compromised lungs and they are sensitive to the conditions caused by fires.

“People with cystic fibrosis or bronchitis are more sensitive to air and so they are not in a position to get out when there is a lack of oxygen,” Tary explained. “They are even more vulnerable to this. We might see an increase in the number of people who have already been admitted to St. Luke’s, which we’ve seen a few. We need to get control of this before it becomes a bigger problem.”

Tary suggested people stay away from the situation and let individuals with the right equipment to solve the problem handle the fires and control the pollution. He added if individuals use rescue inhalers, those will provide temporary relief.

“If you have a compromised heart or lungs, being outdoors is what we call exacerbation,” Tary said. “Even if you’ve been outside and have been breathing the pollution in, you’re still vulnerable after several hours if you get in your car and think you’re okay. If you’re feeling the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning like being light-headed or faint, go to the hospital immediately so you can reverse the poisoning.”