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Smoke Pollution ‘Code Red’ Air Quality for Tennessee Wildfires: Safety Masks Required

Areas of smoke are expected again and might even pick up in the Knoxville area as wildfires continue to burn throughout the region. The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation issued a code red air quality alert for the area, in effect until midnight Wednesday, and conditions are changing daily.

Ground-level particulate concentrations are expected to approach or exceed unhealthy standards, according to the National Weather Service. What, exactly, is particulate, how bad is it, and what can we do about it?


Particulate matter, also called “particle pollution,” is a mix of liquid droplets and solid particles – dust, dirt, soot, smoke and various chemicals – found in the air. They form when pollutants react with one another in the atmosphere. Though their sizes vary, with some large enough to be seen with the naked eye, it’s particles that have a diameter of 10 micrometers or less that concern health officials the most, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

That’s because those particles are “inhalable” – they can get deep into your lungs or even, sometimes, into your bloodstream. The EPA said a number of scientific studies have linked breathing in particulate matter to nonfatal heart attacks, irregular heartbeat, decreased lung function, and increased respiratory symptoms, such as coughing or difficulty breathing.


Face masks with a N95 or greater rating for the prevention of harmful smoke inhalation are proven to be effective to filter out particulate matter. With recent pollution events in India and China many manufacturers are working to proved greater protection from harmful air pollutants.Smoke is again expected in the Knoxville area as wildfires continue around the region. This view is looking east from Hill Avenue across the James C. Ford Memorial Bridge, also known as the South Knoxville Bridge.

If you already have asthma, particulate matter can aggravate it. If you already have heart or lung disease, studies suggest exposure to particulate matter exposure could hasten your death. Residents can find the current air quality as well as the “air quality index forecast” for their area at the EPA’s website.

Under the “red,” or “unhealthy,” alert currently affecting this area, “everyone” should reduce prolonged or heavy exertion and take more breaks during outdoor activities.

People with heart or lung diseases, older adults, and children and teenagers are the most likely to be affected by particle pollution exposure, so they especially should avoid prolonged outdoor exposure to the smoke and should take more breaks during all outdoor activities, the government said. Wearing a dust mask, scarf or bandana outside won’t help; they’re designed to trap large particles, like sawdust, but won’t keep small particulate matter out of your lungs.


“I have never seen it this bad before. This is quite unique in a bad way. We have never had anything in the 11 years I have been here this bad,” said James Shamiyeh, pulmonary critical care doctor and medical director of the Heart Lung Vascular Institute at the University of Tennessee.

He pointed out that the true air quality can change even during a 24-hour period. Air quality has never been good here in the last few weeks, but it can be varying degrees of problematic, he said, wavering between “unhealthy for sensitive groups” to “unhealthy for everyone.”

“We are most concerned with people with asthma and COPB (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease); they are the ones to be more concerned about. A (respiratory) patient who is otherwise at a steady state, doing all right, the air quality can tip them over and they can have a flare-up. And we are absolutely seeing that.”

Everyone is seeing the haze, smelling a camp fire. If you can see and smell it, there is a potential problem, Shamiyeh said. These particles, essentially microscopic, are too small to block an airway but they are irritants. They can irritate the lungs.

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