Air Quality Index: Stay Informed
Smoke from wildfires, including those currently burning in East Tennessee and surrounding states, is affecting air quality. To protect your health, it’s important to stay informed, watching the Air Quality Index regularly and following any associated health recommendations. While the wildfires are expected to continue for some time, the air quality can change hourly primarily due to changing wind directions and other weather-related events. This fluid situation requires diligence in staying informed.
Visit AirNow.gov for more information and review our frequently asked questions and the resources below. If you still have questions, please contact us by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 865-215-5300.
What is the Air Quality Index?
The AQI is an index for reporting daily air quality. It tells you how clean or polluted your air is, and what associated health effects might be a concern for you. The AQI focuses on health effects you may experience within a few hours or days after breathing polluted air.
Read more here.
How does smoke affect my health?
Particulate matter is the main pollutant of concern from wildfire smoke for the relatively short-term exposures (hours to weeks) that most people will experience. Particles (PM 2.5) from smoke tend to be very small, and therefore can be inhaled into the deepest recesses of the lungs.
Smoke can hurt your eyes, irritate your respiratory system, and worsen chronic heart and lung diseases. The effects of smoke range from eye and respiratory tract irritation to more serious disorders, including reduced lung function, bronchitis, exacerbation of asthma and heart failure.
The amount and length of smoke exposure as well as a person’s age and degree of susceptibility play a role in determining if someone will experience smoke-related health problems. If you are experiencing serious medical problems for any reason, seek medical attention immediately.
Who is most at risk from smoke exposure?
People with heart or lung disease, adults over 65 years of age, children, and pregnant women have the greatest risk.
People who have heart disease might experience:
- Chest pain
- Rapid heartbeat
- Shortness of breath
People who have respiratory allergies, asthma, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), including chronic bronchitis and emphysema, might experience:
- Inability to breathe normally
- Cough with or without mucus
- Chest discomfort
- Wheezing and shortness of breath
Even healthy people may experience some of these symptoms in smoky conditions.
How do I tell if the smoke is affecting me?
Smoke can cause:
- Scratchy throat
- Irritated sinuses
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Stinging eyes
- Runny nose
How should I protect myself from smoke?
Those with lung diseases, such as asthma, bronchitis, emphysema or heart disease, including angina or congestive heart failure, should make sure that they are on their medication and have at least a five-day supply on hand.
Individuals with asthma should consult their physician about an asthma management plan and stick to it during the unusually smoky conditions.
Those having any physical symptoms associated with smoke exposure (trouble breathing, chest pain, etc.) that don’t resolve after going inside or after taking their prescribed medications should seek medical care immediately. Those with questions or concerns should contact their medical provider.
When smoke levels are high, even healthy people may have symptoms or health problems. The best thing to do is to limit your exposure to smoke. Depending on your situation, a combination of the following suggestions may work and give you the most protection from the smoke. The more you limit your exposure, the more you’ll reduce your chances of having health effects.
- Pay attention to local air quality reports daily. Listen and watch for news or health warnings about smoke.
- Reduce the amount of time spent in smoky areas whenever possible.
- Avoid strenuous work or exercise outdoors if the air quality index reaches the unhealthy or red level.
- When driving, run the air conditioner/heater on the recycle or re-circulate mode if possible to avoid drawing smoky air into the car.
- Drink plenty of water.
- Do not rely on paper or dust masks for protection. N95 masks may offer some protection when worn properly.
- Keep indoor air as clean as possible. When smoke levels are high, keep windows and doors shut. Do not use anything that burns, such as candles, fireplaces or gas stoves. Do not vacuum because it stirs up particles already inside your home. Do not smoke because smoking puts even more pollution into the air.
- Follow the burn ban, which includes campfires and fire pits as well as any burning of brush, household waste or construction debris. More information about the ban is available here. In addition to following the burn ban, we recommend you postpone grilling, having fires in your indoor fireplace, or any other burning that creates smoke, as well as running lawn mowers or other small gas-powered engines. While these actions are not likely to cause a wildfire, they do contribute to poor air quality.
- Listen to your body. Those having any physical symptoms associated with smoke exposure (trouble breathing, chest pain, etc.) that don’t resolve after going inside or after taking their prescribed medications should seek medical care immediately. Those with questions or concerns should contact their medical provider.
- High-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters can help reduce breathing problems. Room air cleaners, which utilize a HEPA filter, may reduce the number of irritating fine particles in indoor air.
- Some home HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning system) filters can help reduce smoke (particulate matter) indoors.
Download a PDF of our recommendations by clicking here.
Download our recommendations for children and outdoor activities by clicking here.
Will a mask help me?
Most dust masks are not effective in reducing smoke exposure during a wildfire because they are not designed to filter very small particles and do not fit well enough to provide an airtight seal around the person’s mouth and nose.
- Surgical masks that trap small particles are designed to filter air coming out of the wearer’s mouth and do not provide a good seal to prevent inhalation of small particles or gases in smoke.
- Inexpensive paper "comfort" or "dust" masks commonly found at hardware stores are designed to trap large particles, such as sawdust, not smoke, and therefore do not provide adequate protection for your lungs.
- Mask use may be detrimental by giving the wearer a false sense of security, which might encourage increased physical activity and time spent outdoors. Also, wearing a mask may actually be harmful to some people with heart or lung disease because it can make the lungs work harder to breathe.
- Many types of commercially available masks cannot effectively filter out small smoke particles. They can however, provide some protection from the larger smoke particles that can become airborne when sweeping up soot or ash during cleanup activities. Some types of masks can also filter out up to 95 percent of small smoke particles. These masks are marked with one of the following: “P95,” “R95” or “N95,” and tend to be more expensive than ordinary dust masks.
- Masks with higher ratings (marked “P100,” “R100” or “N100”) can filter out even more particles. If properly fit to the wearer’s face, such masks can provide significant protection against particles in smoke. However, without a good seal around the wearer’s mouth and nose, even these masks will not be effective. Choosing a mask with an exhalation valve will make breathing easier, however, these masks provide no protection against irritating gases in smoke.
- Download a PDF of our recommendations (En Española)
- Download our recommendations for children and outdoor activities
- View Tennessee’s regional ban on open burning
- Get more information about Tennessee’s wildfires
- Check the current air quality index (click on East Tennessee on the map to view local conditions)