With our most recent Glass and Zogg fires in Northern California, you might be afraid that air pollution is affecting your lung health. It is a reasonable concern. We’ve had more than 30 days of unhealthy Air Quality Index (AQI). It was not good for anyone to be venturing out of the house and yet most of us need to do so as a matter of survival.
In this blog I am going to share with you specific facts about particulate matter in wildfire smoke, what to do protect yourself, and proper face mask selection with respect to poor air quality days.
Not all fires are the same and not all smoke is the same
Fundamentally, smoke is made of particles plus carbon chemicals. The recipe is always: carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and some sort(s) of particulate matter or soot. However, the types of smoke released by a fire will be different according to exactly what is burning. Homes and buildings burn metal and plastics along with wood materials. Forested areas burn brush, grass, more natural debris. This is why wild fire smoke is different from other types of smoke such as: campfire, cigarette, or simple grass fires.
Particles and chemicals in smoke depend upon:
What is burning
How much oxygen is available
The temperature of the surroundings
Chemicals found in smoke:
- Acid gases
- Sulfur dioxide
- Nitrogen oxides
- Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)
Aspects of the fire beast: what makes some smoke more dangerous?
- What is burning? For example: brush or grass fire smoke is not the same as aftermath of whole communities being wiped out by a fire. Burned metals, buildings, homes, plastics release very different matter into air.
- How is a fire burning? For example: Is it a smoldering fire or is it a fire roaring across hundreds of acres? Bigger burns mean more particulates released into the air.
- What is the distance between a person breathing the smoke and a fire making the smoke? This is rather counter intuitive. It feels less dangerous if a fire is burning farther away from where we live. Ironically there are added risks with smoke moving distances from its origin. Smoke “ages”. This means sunlight or other chemicals in the air act upon smoke and change its chemical structure while it travels. This can make it more toxic.2
- What is ambient temperature of the location where a fire is burning?i.e.: hotter weather makes it worse.
- How big are the smoke particulates? Ash is larger and heavier so it does not travel far from the site of the fire. However, it is sobering to know that small particles or aerosolized substances are known to float over whole continents.
- Wildfire smoke travels faster and greater distances than other types of smoke.
The metric: PM2.5
Smoke contains particulate matter. Literature and monitoring sources abbreviate particulate matter as PM. The smaller the PM, the more risk is it for our lungs and health. PM is suspended in the air and travels through it. On really bad air quality days, it also is responsible for making our world look something like Gotham City from old Superman movies.
There are multiple reasons why smaller PM poses higher risks to your lungs, immune system and cardiovascular system. Firstly: PM measuring smaller than 2.5 micrometers (aka PM2.5) is not filtered out by cloth face masks. Secondly: these tiny floating specks, which are not visible to the naked eye, can enter the depths of your lungs and go directly into your bloodstream.
The good news is that the macrophage cells of your immune system are made to single out and engulf this type of debris. Macrophages are the real-life human versions of Pac-Man. The less than good news is that your immune system can become overwhelmed with this debris-eating job if you are exposed to too much polluted air. In that case: your macrophages cannot do their job as efficiently.3
The most prevalent pollutant by mass is particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, roughly 50 times smaller than a grain of sand.
Its prevalence is one reason health authorities issue air quality warnings using
PM2.5 as the metric.4
Who is at highest risk for adverse reactions to wild fire smoke?
- Asthmatics and people with known lung disease i.e.: COPD, Emphysema
- Older adults
- People with cardiovascular disease histories such as: Coronary Artery Disease (CAD)
Quote taken from a post wildfire Canadian air pollution study in 2018:
“Wildfire smoke has been shown to have detrimental respiratory and cardiovascular health effects, is associated with all-cause mortality and morbidity, and exhibits lung toxicity and mutagenicity ~ 60 times greater than diesel exhaust.” 5
Things to do to keep you & your family safe
Eat more high quality, high antioxidant containing foods such as:
- Yellow, orange and green fruits and vegetables i.e. bell peppers, citrus fruits, and green leafy vegetables.
- Teas green or black
- Cruciferous vegetables i.e. broccoli, cauliflower and cabbages
- Vitamin C: 3,000-6000mg/day in divided doses. (Reduce dose for gastric or bowel upset).
- Vitamin D3: 5,000 IU day. (Some people need larger doses in order to maintain functional medicine levels of D which are recommended to be at least 80. Having your Vitamin D3 blood level checked is advised. I regularly order this lab for patients and for less than $30 my patients know exactly what their blood level is and how best to supplement.)
- A Liposomal Glutathione supplement-such as Readisorb (available from complimentary health care practitioners). Take as directed by your health care practitioner OR N-acetyl cysteine (NAC) 600mg 3x/day. (NAC is the body’s precursor to Glutathione. It is generally easy to locate and is inexpensive. So, if it’s hard to locate a Glutathione supplement, NAC is a good alternative.)
- Turmeric: 500-750mg/day.
- Selenium: 200mcg/day.
Best face masks for smoke filled days
2020 has become, among other things, the year of the face mask. There are many types and styles. As I mentioned previously in this blog, cloth face coverings are not effective in filtering out the PM2.5 size air pollution.
Look for masks which are labeled: “particulate respirators” and “NIOSH approved”. NIOSH stands for: The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.6
N95 or P100 masks are particulate respirators and will provide a reliable barrier for wildfire particulate matter. However, these masks are in short supply right now. Ironically in many areas, N95 and P100 masks do not meet health department requirements. This is because the valves on these masks do not filter droplet matter exiting from the wearer. So: from a Coronavirus standpoint they are not protecting those around someone wearing an N95 or P100 mask. One option is to wear a cloth face mask over your N95 or P100 mask. The other option is to purchase a KN95 mask, which filters out 95% of the harmful PM.
I strongly suggest doing some reading on proper fit of face masks too. Below is an excellent link from the 3M company on what is called Fit Testing. Hospitals and essential service-based organizations provide Fit Testing of masks to make sure the seal around your face is unbroken. They can also help you select better masks if the contours of your face are preventing a particular mask from doing its job. https://www.3m.com/3M/en_US/safety-centers-of-expertise-us/respiratory-protection/fit-testing/
As we make our way through 2020 and beyond, I sincerely hope this information will help to keep you safe.
Thank you for reading!
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~Karen Reynolds, RN, MS, LAc
We encourage you to become fully informed from multiple reliable sources about all health-related topics and/or practices or products discussed on this blog. Please consult a team of licensed and trusted health care professionals before making health related decisions for yourself, family or loved ones. The information here is for educational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice.