Sometimes harmful chemicals escape into the air when industrial buildings catch fire or other emergency events happen. Those gases can spread far into communities nearby. Different chemicals can pose different risks, so these are general recommendations.
Key step: Follow guidance from on-site emergency personnel. Each release is different, so emergency personnel can best tell you when to evacuate or shelter in place.
- Stay indoors: People living close to the release areas should remain indoors and avoid breathing gases, smoke, ashes and other pollution in the area.
- Don't count on a dust mask: Ordinary dust masks, designed to filter out large particles, will not help. They still allow the more dangerous smaller particles and gases to pass through. Special, more expensive dust masks with true HEPA filters or N-95 masks will filter out some damaging fine particles, but may not fit properly, won't protect against the gases and are difficult for people with lung disease to use. Consult with your doctor before using a mask, especially if you have a lung disease.
- Take extra precautions for kids: Extra precaution should be taken for children, who are more susceptible to harm. Their lungs are still developing and they breathe in more air (and consequently more pollution) per pound of body mass than adults.
- Roll up your car windows: When driving your car in smoky areas, keep your windows and vents closed. Air conditioning should only be operated in the "recirculate" setting.
- Put air conditioners on recirculate: Stay inside as much as possible, with doors, windows and fireplace dampers shut and preferably with clean air circulating through air conditioners and air cleaners. Place damp towels at door thresholds and other draft sources; tape drafty windows. Use air conditioners on the recirculation setting to keep from pulling outside air into the room.
- Keep an eye on your home carbon monoxide monitor, and leave your home if the levels trigger the alarm. Leave your home until safety personnel say it is safe to return.
- Follow advice to evacuate when directed. The gases and soot can pose life-threatening harm, sometimes blown far from the original site. Listen to public health and emergency direction to know about steps to take to protect yourself and your family.
If You Have Lung Disease, Chronic Heart Disease or Diabetes
- Check in with your doctor: People with asthma or other lung diseases, cardiovascular diseases or diabetes should check with their physician regarding any changes in medication that may be needed to cope with the dangerous conditions.
- Keep an eye on symptoms: Higher levels of gases or smoke will make breathing more difficult. If you are experiencing symptoms, please try to contact your physician. If you cannot, asthma patients can follow the asthma action plan developed with their physician. Use your peak flow meter if prescribed. Do not hesitate to take your medication, and avail yourself of the full spectrum of medications your doctor has prescribed to you.
- Ask about your oxygen use: People using oxygen should not adjust their levels of intake before consulting a physician. (Call your doctor BEFORE you take any action.)
- Know when to seek medical attention: If symptoms are not relieved by the usual medicines, seek medical attention. Symptoms to watch for: wheezing, shortness of breath, difficulty taking a full breath, chest heaviness, lightheadedness, and dizziness. If you have any concerns or questions please contact your physician.
- Watch for breathing issues after exposure: If you develop a persistent cough or difficult or painful breathing, call your physician. The first symptoms can appear as late as 24 to 48 hours after exposure. Smoke and dust can remain in areas for many days after the emergency has ended.
Residents and volunteers should use caution during clean-up because the process involves ashes and other sources of pollution.
- Avoid dust and soot: People with lung or heart problems should avoid clean-up activities and areas where dust or soot is present.
- Reduce dust and soot: Thoroughly wet dusty and sooty area prior to clean-up. This will help to reduce the amount of particles becoming airborne.
- Cover your face: Wear an appropriate dust mask (N-95 or better) during clean up.
- Do not disturb: If exposure to asbestos or other hazardous materials is suspected, do not disturb the area. Dust masks do not protect against asbestos.
For more information: Go to Ready.gov.
For more information on respiratory health, please contact our Lung HelpLine at 1-800-LUNGUSA.
Reviewed and approved by the American Lung Association Scientific and Medical Editorial Review Panel. Last reviewed October 31, 2017.