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Boise State Professor warns that wildfire smoke could trigger respiratory infections

Photo by Paige Wirta

The recent wildfire smoke has made many reconsider whether or not to go outdoors. In recent weeks, the air quality in the Treasure Valley was listed in the red zone, meaning it was unhealthy, and Treasure Valley residents were encouraged to stay indoors.

Luke Montrose, associate professor of biology at Boise State, believes the recent wildfire smoke from the west could make us more susceptible to respiratory infections like COVID-19.

Montrose said his thoughts come from a statement the Center For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) put out based on data that was collected. Combs believes the information that was presented has connected smoke exposure to lung infections.

“The body of data, which we are drawing from to connect smoke exposure and lung infections, includes cell models, animal models (including both mice and primates), and even some human data,” Montorse said. 

Montrose agrees that inhaling wildfire smoke can potentially trigger a virus like COVID-19. 

“Small particles of smoke can penetrate the deepest parts of the lung, causing inflammation and leaving specialized immune cells less able to fight off foreign invaders such as viruses,” Montrose said. “Wildfire smoke exposure may leave one more vulnerable to viral lung infections.”

While wearing masks helps to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Montorse mentioned that wearing a mask does not prevent you from inhaling wildfire smoke. 

Photo of the sun in a sky full of smoke.
[Photo of the sun, red and clouded by heavy smoke]
Photo by Paige Wirta | The Arbiter

“[Masks] will do little to protect you from the woodsmoke particles that cause problems in the lungs. This may at first seem counterintuitive because both the woodsmoke particles and the coronavirus are very small,” Montrose said. “Notably, we are not catching individual virions in the cloth mask, rather we are preventing droplets and large aerosols, which are potentially coated with coronavirus, from landing on surfaces or making contact with those around us.” 

Montrose said woodsmoke particles are slightly more difficult to eradicate than COVID-19 droplets.

Montrose warns of the importance of having high quality air purifying systems in place. 

“It is important to take steps to clean the indoor air by implementing HEPA air purification systems and ensuring your HVAC system is outfitted with the highest rated filter it can handle,” Montrose said.

Jade Weeden, a graduate student studying mathematics, understands the concern wildfire smoke can bring on those who inhale it.

“I understand both sides of the argument and can see why smoke can make some people more susceptible to viral infections,” Weeden said. 

Weeden emphasized that the wildfire smoke has affected his day to day activities but tries to find a balance with his daily routine. He can see why some individuals might want to stay indoors and not go outside. He also understands why some people might go about their daily lives even in situations like this. 

Montrose believes it’s important to be vigilant and stay on top of our air quality, especially as flu season nears. He even advises on educating ourselves on what good air quality is. 

“You can also become a citizen scientist and purchase a low-cost air monitor to learn more about the air you breathe both indoors and outdoors.” Montrose said.

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