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Advice from the West Coast to the East Coast on staying safe under smoky skies

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It has been a surreal couple of days here on the East Coast. Just looking down the street here from NPR, the U.S. Capitol is cloaked in a smoky haze. The sky is this weird white. Ailsa, I have seen so many photos of skies like that out West, where you are.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Yeah.

KELLY: But I have never really felt it here - this whole waking up with a scratchy throat, scratchy eyes.

CHANG: I know. I mean, Mary Louise, welcome to our world.

KELLY: Yeah.

CHANG: It's just something we're used to living with out here in California. Like, you know, we have a whole wildfire season. It's not unusual for a big fire to be burning close enough that we see the skies change color and we're all told to stay inside. And, you know, you keep obsessively refreshing your air quality maps on your phone to see if you can finally go running that day.

KELLY: Exactly. I decided not to go running - skipped it this morning...

CHANG: Good move.

KELLY: ...To sleep in, which - I guess a lot of Americans are getting a glimpse right now of what you West Coasters are well used to.

CHANG: Yeah.

KELLY: This is what scientists have been predicting. The planet is warming. We are going to see more wildfires, more severe wildfires, and more and more of us are going to have to get used to living with smoke.

CHANG: Absolutely. And with that in mind, I have Clara Jeffery on the line with us now. She's editor-in-chief of Mother Jones. And as a longtime resident of San Francisco, she has had a lot of experience living with smoky air. Welcome.

CLARA JEFFERY: Thanks so much for having me, Ailsa.

CHANG: Well, thanks for being with us. OK. So what practical tips do you have for dealing with all of this? Like, what is in your, quote-unquote, "smoky air toolkit"?

JEFFERY: My advice is just that it's time for folks who are not as used to this as we are to download some air quality index maps so that they can have a sense of not only what the air is like around them right now but what they might expect. You could use painter's tape to seal your windows if you have old, leaky windows like so many of us in San Francisco have. You can do things like not run your bathroom fans and hood exhaust fans because those tend to pull air directly from outside.

CHANG: Are air purifiers worth it?

JEFFERY: You know, I think they are, certainly out west. I have a few in my household in addition to whatever HVAC systems are available. So sadly, I do think it's probably something that more of the rest of the country is going to invest in to sort of catch as much particulate matter as you possibly can and keep your indoor air as good as it can be.

CHANG: All right. So the best policy is to stay indoors. But, like, if you're someone who needs to go outside, like to walk your dog or maybe you're one of those people who really, really need to exercise outside, what would you recommend that people wear or do while they're outside?

JEFFERY: I don't think anyone should be exercising outside when air quality is in the dangerous to hazardous zone or even the unhealthy zone. Wildfire smoke is 10 times more dangerous than car exhaust and smog. And any kind of smoke can have permanent damage not just to your lungs, but, you know, it has cognitive effects, particularly when little kids are exposed. So it's - don't. No running...

CHANG: Just don't.

JEFFERY: ...When it's smoky. Just don't.

CHANG: Right. But if it's unavoidable - like, I do have to walk my dog. Do you recommend wearing an N95 mask?

JEFFERY: Yeah, N95s and K95s and all of those are great. The particles in wildfire smoke are bigger than virus particulates, as it were. So even a bandana or something like that that we sort of learned doesn't offer you much protection against COVID does offer you some protection.

CHANG: Well, wildfire smoke - you know, it's in the news currently because of the Canadian wildfires. But we're also heading into peak wildfire season out here in the West and in the Southwest. So what is your long-term preparation routine?

JEFFERY: Well, I took this unfortunate incident for the East Coast to reorder my furnace filters and make sure that I had air purifiers in the house, that I have clean filters for that, that I have enough N95 masks and that kind of a thing. Sadly, the preparation and skills we all learned for COVID - many of them apply here.

CHANG: So a lot of us are well-practiced.

JEFFERY: You may not know it, but yes.

CHANG: Clara Jeffery, editor-in-chief of Mother Jones. Thank you so much for all your advice.

JEFFERY: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.