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They killed dozen Americans and destroyed hundreds of houses, but the greatest threat from the wildfires raging on the West Coast of the United States may be invisible. The tiny particles of ash and airborne chemicals generated by fires can travel hundreds or even thousands of kilometers, and can cause not only short-term symptoms such as asthma flare-ups or tearing, but also serious long-term cardiovascular damage that increases blood pressure. risk of death for potentially millions of people.

Guidelines for staying healthy while large fires burn have long been simple: stay indoors and, if possible, use air filters to capture these dangerous microparticles. But the coronavirus pandemic has caused shortages of essential air quality supplies and is forcing difficult compromises on indoor air safety.

Fine smoke particles and coronavirus can be captured by a class of air filters called MERV-13, which can be installed in many existing heating and air conditioning systems. But since these filters were not widely used before the pandemic, a sudden surge in demand created MERV-13 shortages.

Mike Gallagher, president of HVAC contractor Western Allied, believes it will surprise commercial property managers once the current wave of fires dies down.

“Once the smoke clears it smells good outside, but you walk into the building and it smells of smoke. That’s when they realize they need new filters, ”says Gallagher. But with waitlists for MERV-13 filters as long as two months, Gallagher expects many buildings in areas affected by smoke will be forced to temporarily resort to MERV-8 filters, which do not are unable to remove the coronavirus from the air. This could increase the risk of infection in shared spaces, including offices, restaurants and cinemas.

Coronavirus imposes tough second choice as fires rage: let outside air in to reduce the risk of infectionsor seal off buildings to prevent smoke particles from entering.

“For [protection against] COVID, you want to get the [outside air] the highest possible ventilation rate, ”says Tom Javins, CVC veteran. “But with the smoke from wildfires, you want to have the ventilation rate as low as possible. Because the pollutant is in the outdoor air, not in the indoor air. “

Javins sits on the American Society of Heating Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) committee, which develops best practices for heating and ventilation in the event of a forest fire. Although the double bond of coronavirus and smoke is difficult, her biggest concern is widespread indifference: “Most [commercial] Building managers are doing nothing “to adjust to the unsafe outdoor air quality,” he says, and frequently finds that the vents controlling the outdoor airflow in large buildings have broken down completely. More often than not, these vents, known as air registers, are blocked, which helps keep fire particles out but increases the risk of COVID-19 for occupants.

Another set of challenges is trying to protect private homes from the smoke of forest fires. According to Sarah Coefield, air quality specialist at Missoula, Mt. county government, many homes in the Western and Pacific Northwest do not have central HVAC systems capable of filtering smoke particles. This leaves them dependent on the laptop air filtration devices, which are often effective but can also be difficult to find at this time due to the demand for coronaviruses.

Even when available, portable air filters can be expensive, easily costing several hundred dollars for a device large enough to purify the air in one room. This highlights a larger problem: As seen with the coronavirus, the better-off are better able to protect themselves from the health effects of forest fires. In addition to the cost of filters, lower-end homes or apartments may have more leaks around windows and doors that let in contaminants. And, again, as with COVID-19, not all workers are equally able to protect themselves – agricultural workers, for example, cannot work from home to escape the smoke.

This is one of the reasons why, despite his professional background, Javins has difficulty focusing on better air filtration to combat the health risks of pollutants from wildfires. “We’re talking about how to treat the symptoms,” he says, “and we’re not really talking about how to treat the problem”. accelerate rate and intensity of forest fires. Experts attribute the wildfire outbreak to a combination of poor forest management and man-made climate change. These are problems that no air filter can solve.

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