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Stay protected while gardening during our brutal summer

“Ah, summer, what power you have to make us suffer and like it.”

— Russell Baker, author of “Growing Up,” 1982

American author and columnist Russell Baker won two Pulitzer Prizes for his ability to write about serious topics with mild humor. His talents are certainly evident in this quote because the Rogue Valley’s dog days of summer are no laughing matter.

The ancient Greeks were the first to use the term “dog days of summer” for the period between July 3 and Aug. 11, when Sirius, or the Dog Star, appears to rise with the morning sun. The Greeks believed the star intensifies summer heat. As explained by Homer in “The Iliad,” “Orion’s Dog they call it, brightest of all, but an evil portent, bringing heat and fevers to suffering humanity.”

Evil may be going a bit far, but suffering is an apt description for the way I’ve been feeling lately on hot afternoons when temperatures soar past 100 degrees. Even worse, smoke from wildfires in Jackson, Josephine and Douglas counties makes gardening outside not only unpleasant but positively unhealthy from breathing in sooty air.

Staying indoors on extremely hot and smoky days is a good idea, but what about our gardening? The key is to arm ourselves against these doggone days with protection that includes a mask, sunglasses, sunscreen, a hat and protective clothing.

According to the Department of Public Health, the best masks to protect lungs from wildfire smoke are N95 or P100 particulate respirators with two straps that should be placed above and below the ears. Choose a size that fits snugly over the nose and under the chin, and pinch the metal part of the mask tightly over the bridge of the nose. Masks should be replaced after several uses because the fabric becomes clogged.

One-strap masks, surgical masks and bandanas do not provide effective protection from wildfire smoke.

To protect our eyes from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) and high-energy visible (HEV) rays, always wear a pair of high-quality sunglasses that block 100 percent of UV rays and absorb most HEV rays. Try styles with large lenses or close-fitting, wraparound lenses.

Although lens color is unrelated to UV protection, colors that block the most HEV rays are bronze, copper and reddish-brown. Remember that UV exposure can be high even on hazy or overcast days.

The Environmental Protection Agency publishes a daily UV index forecast on its website (www.epa.gov/enviro/uv-index-search) that calculates the risk of UV exposure from 1 (low risk) to 11+ (extreme risk). When I checked the UV index for our area this past week, the index was forecast at 10 (very high), and the EPA had issued a UV alert for unusually intense ultra-violet radiation.

In addition to protecting lungs and eyes, protect skin by using sunscreen with a high Sun Protection Factor (SPF), which measures how long a person can be exposed to the sun’s rays without getting burned. An SPF of 30, for example, will provide protection for 300 minutes (5 hours) longer before burning, as long as the sunscreen doesn’t come off by sweating or swimming.

The Environmental Working Group offers a guide to sunscreens on its website at www.ewg.org/sunscreen/. However, keep in mind that SPF only measures protection from the sun’s UVB rays unless the product label states it’s a broad-spectrum sunscreen, which means the sunscreen also protects against UVA rays. Both types of ultra-violet rays are responsible for skin damage, including skin cancer.

SPF is specifically for sunscreens, whereas the more recent UPF ratings measure how much of the sun’s UVA and UVB radiation are absorbed by the fabrics of clothing, hats and other accessories. For example, a fabric with a UPF rating of 50 allows 1/50th of the sun’s UV radiation to pass through it, in other words protecting covered skin’s exposure to UV radiation 50 times more than uncovered skin. Sunday Afternoons (www.sundayafternoons.com) is a local company that specializes in sun protection clothing and accessories with UPF ratings of 50+.

So, gardeners, let’s not allow the extreme heat and smoke to cause us to throw in our trowels. Let’s don our protective gear and embrace our suffering. After all, as Russell Baker observed, “Happiness is a small and unworthy goal for something as big and fancy as a whole lifetime, and should be taken in small doses.”

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, visit her blog at http://blogs.esouthernoregon.com/theliterarygardener/.