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Limiting Exposure - Video Vignette

If you burn wood, it's important to do it the right way - because wood smoke can have serious health effects. Here are some things to look for and some ways to limit your exposure.

Even occasional exposure to wood smoke can result in health problems that lead to increased medication use, doctor and emergency room visits, hospital admissions, school absences and in some cases - death. While some of the first signs that you are breathing air that is bad for you may be small, the effects on your body are lasting and can have serious consequences. Don't ignore these signs.

Smoke irritates the eyes and airways, which causes coughing, a scratchy throat, irritated sinuses, headaches and a runny nose. For those who have heart disease, it can make symptoms worse including chest pain, palpitations, shortness of breath, and fatigue. Those with lung disease may not be able to breathe as deeply, compounded by coughing, chest discomfort, and shortness of breath. Even healthy people can experience these symptoms if smoke levels are high.

How much wood smoke you are exposed to and how many dangerous chemicals are in the smoke depends on how well the wood burns, how quickly the smoke rises and spreads, and the amount of time you spend breathing wood smoke, whether it's from an indoor wood stove or an outdoor campfire.

If you must burn wood, always burn dry wood - it burns hotter and cleaner and is also 30 percent more efficient than logs with a high moisture content. Wood that has been split, dried, and stored under cover for at least a year burns best and results in producing fewer harmful chemicals that remain in your system for years.

Seasonal variations are also important to consider. Wood smoke does not rise and spread during winter temperature inversions, but instead hangs close to the ground, remaining in the air for long periods of time and entering yards, houses, schools and hospitals, all places where those most at risk are likely to be. This means that downwind areas and valleys with poor circulation are the most affected, as tiny particulate matter hangs in the air just feet off the ground where it can easily enter buildings with the incoming cold air.

The amount of wood smoke you breathe depends on how much time you spend outside during smoky conditions and how much smoke is indoors when you are there. Protect yourself by limiting your exposure to smoke.

In areas with high levels of wood smoke, even houses not using wood stoves have higher indoor wood smoke levels and can be as high as 70 percent of outdoor levels - even if the house is air tight.

Protect yourself by paying attention to local air quality reports and health warnings related to smoke. Also find out if your community reports EPA's air quality index, which is based on data from local air quality monitors and recommends precautions you can take to limit your exposure. As smoke gets worse, the concentration of particles in the air changes - and so do the steps you should take to protect yourself.

If your community doesn't have a monitor that measures particle levels in the air, it may have visibility guides, which are simple guidelines to help you estimate the air quality index based on how far you can see. The Alaska department of environmental conservation can tell you if there is a visibility guide for your area. And use common sense: if it looks smoky outside, it's probably best to limit outdoor activities. And if you are advised to stay inside, keep the indoor air as clean as possible by keeping windows and doors closed.

And if you live in a fire-prone area, plan ahead by talking with your doctor before the fire season starts so you'll know what to do in a smoky situation.

Burn wise and breathe easy by burning the right wood, the right way, in the right stove. For more tips on burning wisely visit Burn Wise Alaska.