Air quality officials issue health notice for western North Carolina

(NC DEQ)

(NC DEQ)

RALEIGH, N.C. — Air quality officials have issued an advisory for air pollution in western North Carolina on Monday and Tuesday as smoke from numerous wildfires blankets the region, according to a news release from the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality. Residents throughout the mountains and foothills of North Carolina could experience unhealthy air quality, depending on wind directions.

About 15 wildfires covering 44,000 acres of land are burning in western North Carolina and smoke from those fires can contain high levels of air pollution. Residents throughout the area could be exposed to Code Red (unhealthy) or Code Purple (very unhealthy) levels of particle pollution, the release said.

The state Division of Air Quality and the U.S. Forest Service have set up a number of special mobile air monitors throughout the region, along with permanent air monitors in Asheville, Bryson City, Hickory and other locations. These monitors have measured unhealthy to very unhealthy levels of air pollution in smoke downwind of wildfires. The primary pollutant of concern is fine particles, which are extremely small particles and liquid droplets in the air. Particles can be harmful to breathe and contribute to haze and other air quality problems.

“People should be aware of air quality in their area, as conditions can vary widely,” said Mike Abraczinskas, deputy director of the division, in a statement Monday. “If you observe low visibility due to smoke, then the air is probably unhealthy to breathe and you should limit your time outdoors.”

The national air quality standard for fine particles is 35 micrograms per cubic meter averaged over 24 hours. A number of air quality monitors in the mountains and the foothills regions have exceeded the standard, in some locations for much of the past week.

High particle levels can impair breathing and aggravate symptoms in people with respiratory problems, and irritate the lungs in healthy individuals. People with chronic lung ailments and children should reduce physical exertion and outdoor activity.

For Tuesday, forecasters have predicted Code Purple, or very unhealthy conditions, for the southwestern most part of the state (Cherokee, Clay, Graham and Macon counties). Code Red conditions, or unhealthy, are forecasted for much of mountains and some of the foothills. Code Orange conditions, or unhealthy for sensitive groups, are forecasted for the northern mountains, much of the foothills and the Western Piedmont, including Charlotte. See the air quality forecast map for more details.

The forecast means everyone in these areas should avoid or reduce prolonged or heavy exertion outdoors, and sensitive groups should avoid any activity outside, the release said. Sensitive groups include the elderly, children, people who work or exercise outdoors and those with heart conditions and respiratory ailments such as asthma, bronchitis and emphysema.

Fine particles can penetrate deeply into the lungs and be absorbed into the bloodstream, causing or aggravating heart and lung diseases. People most susceptible to particle pollution include those with heart and respiratory conditions, the elderly and young children. Symptoms of exposure to high particle levels include: irritation of the eyes, nose and throat; coughing; phlegm; chest pain or tightness; shortness of breath; and asthma attacks. In extreme cases, particle pollution can cause premature death.

The N.C. Division of Air Quality issues daily air forecasts for the Triangle, Charlotte, Asheville, Hickory, Fayetteville and Rocky Mount metropolitan areas. In the Triad, forecasts are issued by the Forsyth County Office of Environmental Assistance and Protection. For more information, visit ncair.org or facebook.com/NCAQFC.

More information about particular wildfires can be found here.