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How Smoky Is Too Smoky? Here's What To Know About Outdoor Exercise During Wildfire Season

 A kayaker on a lake in front of a plume from wildfire smoke.
Madelyn Beck
Boise State Public Radio
A kayaker and a plume of wildfire smoke.

If you have plans to go hiking or mountain biking, you may be asking yourself, "At what point is it too smoky and unhealthy for me to go outside and exercise?" Experts like Boise State University environmental toxicologist Luke Montrose say it depends.

For one, Montrose said, it's important to assess your risk.

"'Am I part of what we would consider sensitive populations for wildfire smoke inhalation?'" he explained.

Those sensitive groups include the very young, the very old, and the pregnant or nursing. Plus, health conditions like asthma and COPD can make hazy conditions that much more dangerous.

If you're part of the population that is at high-risk of complications from smoke, and the air quality is considered unhealthy, you may experience health effects like breathing difficulties, heart attack or stroke, if you decide to spend time outside.

The U.S. Air Quality Index breaks things down into six categories, and each category has a specific color: green/good, yellow/moderate, orange/unhealthy for sensitive groups, red/unhealthy, purple/very unhealthy, and maroon/hazardous.

For example, an AQI above 101 is considered unhealthy. Members of sensitive groups may experience health effects at that level, while the general public is less likely to be affected. You can find the air quality rating on websites like airnow.gov.

If you're not able to get your hands on that data, visibility range can be used as a tool for estimating air quality. In other words, Montrose said you can use landmarks and how well you can see them to make a judgment call.

If something like a water tower or a mountain that's 3 miles away isn't visible, it's probably a good idea for sensitive groups to stay inside. If you can't see landmarks that are even closer than that, then all groups should limit outdoor activity.

"Ultimately, it is a personal decision," said Montrose. "Whether or not you want to put yourself out there in an environment where you're knowingly exposing yourself."

One question that Montrose said he often hears: how do you balance the health benefits that you get from exercising with the health deficits that you get from breathing in smoke and, and when does one outweigh the other? Once again, he said it depends. But one thing to keep in mind: the harder you're breathing, the shorter your exposure should be to poor air quality conditions. So opting for a lighter exercise instead of strenuous activity can make a difference.

Additionally, indoor air isn't clean by virtue of being inside, especially with long-duration smoke events. Air quality specialists say that's why it's important to clean the air with something like an air purifier with a true HEPA filter.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Maggie Mullen is Wyoming Public Radio's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. Her work has aired on NPR, Marketplace, Science Friday, and Here and Now. She was awarded a 2019 regional Edward R. Murrow Award for her story on the Black 14.
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