Wildfire Smoke’s  Impact on Health

Wildfire Smoke’s Impact on Health

As any fan of the Netflix series The Crown can tell you, in 1952 London was beset with a mysterious ‘killer fog.’ A combination of windless conditions, unusually cold weather and airborne pollutants connected to the use of coal created the worst air pollution event in the history of the United Kingdom, resulting in the estimated deaths of 12,000 people. Another 150,000 were hospitalized and thousands of animals also perished. The event was directly linked to the passage of the Clean Air Act four years later. In 2020 there’s no mystery about what’s causing the gray skies and poor air quality throughout the western U.S. As of mid-September, wildfires have consumed 6.7 million acres and smoke has spread as far as the east coast and Europe. But although no coal plants are involved, the smoke contains multiple unhealthy substances made all the more dangerous because of their size. Even once the smoke has cleared, the toxic ash that’s left behind can infiltrate soils, streams and creeks, making its way into our gardens and regional aquatic ecosystems.

What’s in Wildfire Smoke Wildfires are indiscriminate about what they burn, whether that’s old growth forest or a residential neighborhood filled with homes, cars and furniture. In either case, the chemicals released are toxic. Trees and vegetation release carbon, while synthetic materials pump carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and heavy metals into the atmosphere. Some last longer than others; formaldehyde lingers for one or two days while benzene can last for up to two weeks. Other problematic substances include polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) that are found in fossil fuels, lead and cadmium. Another issue: ozone. Over time, the carbon-containing gases, nitrogen-containing gases and sunlight combine to create ozone. As the smoke plume travels across the country, more ozone is developed. The most common measurement of air quality is PM2.5 or particles that are smaller than 2.5 microns. But as Dr. Louise Tolzmann, a naturopathic physician from Portland, Oregon points out, the most severe threat comes from the tiniest fragments. “The smaller particles - PM 0.1 - are much more toxic,” says Tolzmann. “They aren’t being measured and they’re dangerous because they don’t stay in your lungs. They go straight into your bloodstream and into organs like your brain and your heart.”

Wildfire Smoke’s Impact on Human Health We absorb wildfire smoke both through our lungs and our skin. In the short term, it causes eye irritation, wheezing, a dry cough and headaches in otherwise healthy people. Any particles below PM 2.5 can deeply penetrate the lungs, causing the body to release immune cells the same way it would to combat a virus. The problem, according to Sarah Henderson, an environmental health scientist at the University of British Columbia, is that the immune response cannot break down the particulate matter. The result is long-lasting inflammation. “That inflammation affects your lungs, kidneys, liver, and probably your brain,” says Henderson. Underlying conditions that feed off of inflammation like asthma or COPD will be exacerbated by the smoke. Studies have found increased rates of ambulance calls for heart attacks, strokes, asthma and other respiratory issues within one hour after PM2.5 increased, and another report identified a rise in cardiac deaths due to wildfire smoke exposure. Dr. Mary Prunicki, the director of Air Pollution and Health Research at the Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy and Asthma Research at Stanford, has also found that wildfire smoke compromises the immune system by causing the immune gene that produces T cells to be turned down. “T regulatory cells are needed to have a healthy immune system,” says Prunicki.

Ways to Support Your Health and Minimize the Effects of Wildfire Smoke Aside from staying indoors, installing a HEPA filter and avoiding exercise, there are other ways to minimize or at least mitigate the toll wildfire smoke takes on your health.

  • Supplement your diet with B complex vitamins. A study in the U.S. found that a four-week regimen of B vitamin supplements limited the effects of PM2.5 pollution by between 28 and 76 % and reduced the impact on mitochondrial DNA in an equally dramatic fashion.
  • Take fish oil supplements to reduce inflammation throughout the body, support heart health and reduce the risk of stroke.
  • Drink green tea, which contains a natural antioxidant that helps to prevent cell damage and reduce the formation of free radicals in the body.
  • Eat brassicas such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and kale. Like green tea, they protect cells against oxidative damage and help to prevent chronic diseases.
  • Wash vegetables from your garden carefully to remove any residual ash.
  • If you have to clean up ash, make sure to wear adequate protective clothing such as gloves, long-sleeved shirts, long pants, shoes and socks, and goggles. Wash off any ash that gets on your skin as soon as possible.
  • Detox your body safely and gently with help from a Vitality Release Drops, which remove heavy metals and other toxic substances. Learn more here. https://vitalitytruehealth.com
Resources: “How Breathing in Wildfire Smoke Affects the Body” by Sarah Gibbens and Amy McKeever, National Geographic, September 15, 2020 “How Wildfire Smoke Affects the Body and What You Can do to Protect Yourself” by Julia Ries, Healthline, September 17, 2020 “What’s in Wildfire Smoke and How Dangerous is It?” by Matt Simon, Wired, September 18, 2020 “B Vitamins May Have ‘Protective Effect’ Against Air Pollution” by Matt McGrath, BBC News, March 14, 2017 Dr. Louise Tolzmann, Facebook page “After the Napa Fires, a Disaster in Waiting: Toxic Ash” by Adam Rogers, Wired Magazine, October 9, 2017
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