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Your questions about Spokane's air quality answered

Spokane is seeing its worst recorded air quality since measurements started being taken in 1999.

SPOKANE, Wash. — Spokane is seeing record-breaking levels of unhealthy air as smoke from wildfires across the west coast have blanketed the Inland Northwest.

Spokane's air quality has been in the hazardous range since the weekend, and conditions aren't expected to improve until Friday.

Health officials have advised people in the area to remain indoors as much as possible due to the hazardous air conditions, which are sitting at the worst recorded levels since such measurements started being taken in 1999.

KREM's Amanda Roley set out to answer some of the most commonly asked questions about the poor air quality in Spokane.

Q: What happens when we cross the 500 mark on the air quality index?Is there a toxic reading?

A: Values above 500 are considered Beyond the AQI (Air Quality Index), since the scale is set to 0-500. Follow recommendations for the hazardous category. When we have air quality in these categories it is important to avoid time outdoors and to keep your indoor air as clean as possible. Additional information on reducing exposure to extremely high levels of particle pollution is available here.

Q: Have we ever seen it bad before, and if so, when?
A: Not for wildfire smoke. According to the Spokane Clean Air Agency, this is the worst it has ever been since air quality started being reported more than 20 years ago in 1999.

On Monday, the AQI was reported at 479. The closest its ever been in the last 20 years was in August 2018 with an AQI of 257.

RELATED: Air quality school closures: Districts in eastern Washington, North Idaho cancel classes

Q: How can you best protect your pets?
A: Your pets can be affected by wildfire smoke. If you feel the effects of smoke, they probably do too! Smoke can irritate your pet’s eyes and respiratory tract. Animals with heart or lung disease and older pets are especially at risk from smoke and should be closely watched during all periods of poor air quality. 

When smoke is present, Spokane Clean Air Agency recommends:

  • Keep pets indoors as much as you can, with doors and windows closed. Bring outdoor pets into a room with good ventilation, like a utility room, garage, or bathroom. Move potentially dangerous products, such as pesticides, out of the reach of pets.
  • Smoke is especially tough on your pet birds. Keep them inside when smoke is present.
  • Keep indoor air clean: do not fry or broil foods, vacuum, burn candles, use a fireplace or wood stove, or smoke tobacco products. These activities add particles to your home. 
  • Spend less time outdoors and limit physical activities when it is smoky. For example, when it’s smoky, it’s not a good time for you and your pet to go for a run. Let dogs and cats outside only for brief bathroom breaks if air quality alerts are in effect.

Q: Is it ok to be outside with hazardous/bad air quality if I wear a mask? And if so, for how long?
A: Face masks are not recommended as the best option for members of the general public to reduce their exposure to wildfire smoke. It is better to stay indoors and keep indoor air clean.

During previous fire seasons, members of the general public who need to use a face mask for a limited period of time outside during a smoke event have been directed to use an N95 or other NIOSH respirator rated for fine particulates while also taking several necessary steps to ensure it is worn correctly to achieve a proper fit and seal.

N95 respirators are not an option for everyone, as they are not recommended for children, not as effective with facial hair, and those with pre-existing conditions should first consult with a healthcare provider.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, N95 and other NIOSH-approved respirators are in short supply and need to be reserved for those required to wear them for work.

RELATED: Colleges and universities around the Inland Northwest cancel in-person classes amid unhealthy air quality

Q; What does the smoke do to your body?

A: Spokane County Health officer Doctor Lutz said inhaling smoke is not good for anyone, even healthy people.

Smoke is a combination of microscopic particles and mixture of gasses. Breathing in these microscopic particles pose health concerns because they can get deep into your lungs, and some may even get into your bloodstream.

Exposure to such particles can affect both your lungs and your heart. Numerous scientific studies have linked particle pollution exposure to a variety of problems, including:

  • premature death in people with heart or lung disease
  • nonfatal heart attacks
  • irregular heartbeat
  • aggravated asthma
  • decreased lung function
  • increased respiratory symptoms, such as irritation of the airways, coughing or difficulty breathing.

Other smoke-related health effects include:  

  • Coughing, scratchy throat, irritated sinuses, shortness of breath, chest pain, headaches, stinging eyes, and runny nose.
  • If you have heart or lung disease, smoke might make your symptoms worse.
  • People who have heart disease might experience chest pain, a rapid or irregular heartbeat, shortness of breath, and fatigue.

Q: Is it safe to go hunting in bad air quality?
A: Hunters and anyone wanting to enjoy the outdoors should check the current AQI and follow the recommended health precautions.

Q: Is it safe to go outside if we have to?
A: During these current conditions, everyone should avoid or limit time outdoors.