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Smoke a concern for health risks as fires continue in north Georgia, Southeast
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Atlanta’s AQI guide

* A “good” AQI is 0-50. “Air quality is considered satisfactory and air pollution poses little or no risk.”

* A “moderate” AQI is 51-100. “Unusually sensitive people [should] consider reducing prolonged or heavy exertion. Watch for symptoms such as coughing or shortness of breath. These are signs to take it easier.”

* “Unhealthy for sensitive groups” AQI is 101-150. “Members of sensitive groups may experience health effects. The general public is not likely to be affected.”

* “Unhealthy” AQI is 151-200. “Everyone may begin to experience health effects; members of sensitive groups may experience more serious health effects.”

* “Very Unhealthy” AQI is 201-300 and considered a health alert: “everyone may experience more serious health effects.”

* “Hazardous” AQI is 301-500. “Health warnings of emergency conditions [are issued.] The entire population is more likely to be affected.”

FORSYTH COUNTY -- As wildfires continue to blaze through acres of forest and brush in much of north Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina, smoke is expected to remain thick in the air in Forsyth County and metro Atlanta.

With more than 30,000 acres burning in Georgia alone, the smoky haze, which has cloaked the county and surrounding areas for more than a week, is prompting officials to warn residents about potential health concerns.

As of 9 a.m. Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Air Quality Index, or AQI, listed conditions in and around Atlanta as an unhealthy 165.

Monday’s AQI didn’t reach unhealthy levels until mid-afternoon and died down late at night, with concentrations “only following smoke plumes from wildfires.”

However, the EPA warns that with a classification of ‘unhealthy,’ “everyone may begin to experience health effects [and] members of sensitive groups may experience more serious health effects.”

Those groups are anyone who is sensitive to smoke or has asthma or allergies, Forsyth County Fire Department Division Chief Jason Shivers said previously.

District Ranger for the Georgia Forestry Commission, Shawn Alexander, said the Commission has responded to 253 fires in the Coosa District so far this month, which includes Forsyth.

Normally, he said, November’s average is 78, but the number is up about 325 percent already.

October’s average, which is usually about 30 fires, was up 1,200 percent this year with the Commission responding to 362 fires.

Alexander said though fires are still being investigated, he believes some are likely arson.

“I’m sure there were situations that were caused by arson, but reports may not be done for a week or two,” he said. “With that many fires, the likelihood of arson is high. But machinery, car fires, and smoking … we’ve attributed that, too.”


What are you actually breathing in?


According to the EPA, smoke is primarily composed of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, particulate matter and other chemicals, such as benzene, a potential carcinogen and formaldehyde, which is used to preserve dead bodies.

Though the colorless, odorless gases can cause serious health effects, particulate matter is also of concern.

The U.S. Forest Service’s website says “particulate matter is the principal pollutant of public health concern related to wildland fire smoke.

Coarse particles about 5 to 10 microns in diameter (PM10) can deposit in the upper respiratory system. Fine particles less than 2.5 microns in diameter (PM 2.5) can penetrate much deeper into the lungs.”

According to the AQI, the majority of air particles Tuesday were PM2.5.

Nancy Nydam, director of public relations for the Georgia Department of Public Health, said the greatest threat is to people who are at risk for lung and respiratory illnesses, who have preexisting conditions and the elderly and young children.

People who have emphysema, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), asthma or who find smoke an irritant are also at risk.

But, she warned, even healthy adults should remain indoors.

“We talk about people who are in higher risk categories, but even for a healthy person, this is not the time to go out and do strenuous activity, like going for a jog or even working in the yard,” she said. “Even if you’re perfectly healthy, you ought to avoid being outdoors.”

Cumming doctor Jim Morrow, who owns Morrow Family Medicine, agreed.

“Any time you have an irritant in the air, be careful how much time you spend outside, especially if you have any chronic respiratory concern,” Morrow said. “While there are no infectious agents in the smoke we’re getting, more irritation in the lungs causes more mucus buildup, which traps other potentially infectious particles that can lead to bronchitis or a persistent cough.”

The small particles, he added, can cause more serious concerns.

“[Those] are a lot more likely to cause you more trouble, because they go deep into your lungs and occupy oxygen carriers,” he said. “The smoke is [already] taking up space so there’s now a risk of pneumonia, too.”

Morrow said more immediately, also, lower oxygen levels can affect a person’s heart, brain and energy levels.


What can you do?


Health and fire officials have reiterated staying indoors is the best way to avoid smoke-related issues.

“Stay inside is the number one thing, because your HVAC will filter out vast majority of particles,” Morrow said. “Masks don’t do an overabundance of good. Usually the ones you buy at hardware store don’t keep out the fine particles.”

If going outdoors to walk a pet is a must, Nydam said, do it during dusk or dawn and when it’s less windy, because the smoke is being carried south by the wind.

The cooler temperatures of dusk and dawn also keep smoke lower to the ground and therefore should affect adults less.

Children are still at greater risk.

For questions or more information, go to or call the Forsyth County Fire Department Fire Marshal’s Office at (678) 455-8072.