What the Air Quality Index doesn't tell us about smoke dangers

With smoke in the PNW popping up more frequently and sticking around longer, even people who aren't part of 'sensitive' groups are feeling its impacts.

by Hannah Weinberger/ November 14, 2022

When Jessica Godwin went to open yet another rapid test, she asked herself the question many other Seattleites had asked near-daily in mid-October: Is it COVID-19 that’s making me feel crappy, or is it the wildfire smoke hanging around for weeks?

With her nasal drip, sore throat and fatigue, it was hard to tell the difference. Godwin doesn’t consider herself a member of a group sensitive to wildfire smoke — for example, people with preexisting conditions or outdoor workers — but her symptoms were popping up even as smoke concentrations fell below what the Air Quality Index deems unhealthy. She was positive that wildfire exposure was behind her health challenges: Her eyes burned when the smoke spread into King County from the Bolt Creek Fire near Skykomish and other fires, even on days this fall when she wasn’t frequently outside. She tested negative for COVID-19.

“There were days when [the smoke fatigue] was so bad that I couldn’t even do my work,” said Godwin, a statistical demographer at the University of Washington who researches population health and mortality...