Staying Healthy Under Smoke and Air Pollution

Summer wildfires have become a regular occurance in recent years, particularly in drier areas such as the Western U.S. As multiple fires rage, the skies fill with toxic smoke that can linger for weeks and travel thousands of miles. Even if your local area is spared from the flames, you may not be spared from the effects of the poor air quality, which can range from unhealthy to hazardous

Wildfire smoke is a toxic brew of gases and fine particles that come from a variety of burned materials, from plant life to buildings and everything those buildings contained, including paint, pesticides, and other chemical compounds. That smoke is full of thousands of individual compounds that are toxic to humans, including carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), carbon dioxide, hydrocarbons, and nitrogen oxides. 

The most prevalent pollutant -- and the most dangerous -- is the super fine particulate matter that’s less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter. While larger particles are easier for your body to eliminate, PM2.5 particles can slip past your natural defenses and travel deeper into the lungs. There, it’s up to the immune cells in your air sacks, called macrophages, to eliminate these toxic compounds -- but long-term exposure to air pollution can suppress macrophage activity.1

This can lead to larger health issues. Increased inflammation in the lungs can contribute to respiratory problems, and has also been linked with cardiovascular health risks. And since those macrophages in your lungs are also responsible for targeting other airborne threats, such as bacteria and viruses, damage to your lungs’ immune system may increase risk of infection.2 One nationwide study showed that exposure to PM2.5 air pollution is linked with an increase in deaths from COVID-19.3

Some are at higher risk from the effects of smoke than others, particularly children, pregnant women, the elderly, and those with pre-existing respiratory or cardiovascular conditions. But unhealthy air isn’t good for anyone, especially when the exposure is long term. It’s important to do everything you can to minimize your exposure and support your body while it’s working hard to defend you against the threat of toxic smoke.

Here are some helpful things you can do to stay healthy under smoky conditions:

1. Stay Informed

Pay attention to the Air Quality Index readings for your local area and follow the guidelines. If it’s red or higher, avoid going outdoors as much as possible. Sensitive, high-risk groups should do the same for yellow or orange readings. If you must venture outside, wear a mask. Only N95, P95, or K95 masks can keep out the super fine particles, but if these are hard to come by, anything is better than nothing. Don't exercise or exert yourself too much, since heavy breathing will increase your smoke intake.

2. Protect Your Space

Seal up your house as best you can. If there are obvious cracks letting in the smoke, try taping up window frames and putting a wet towel under the door. Run your central air conditioner to filter the air, changing out the filter often. You can also get a portable air filter. The best ones are the “True HEPA” filters, which are designed to remove particles as small as .03 microns. THE EPA also advises against anything that might contribute to the indoor air pollutants, such as smoking, burning a candle, or even vacuuming, which can stir up pollutants.

3. Drink Lots of Water

Your body will be working extra hard to detox from the smoke, and it needs plenty of water to support your body’s detox systems. Water can help flush out micro particles in your lungs and help your kidneys filter out harmful toxins from the blood. If you feel a headache coming on from the smoke, it’s a sign to drink more water. In addition to water, green tea has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits and has been shown to improve lung health for smokers.4 

4. Support Your Immune System

Your body needs extra nutrients to keep your immune system strong under stress. Eat plenty of colorful fruits and veggies, which are rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Antioxidants will help protect against oxidative damage and inflammation caused by the smoke. You can give your immune system extra support with potent antioxidant supplements such as Vitamin C, Vitamin E, or Tumeric and Ginger. If you are staying indoors, you’ll also need to take Vitamin D for immune support. Studies confirm that these supplements can help with respiratory health issues from pollution.5

5. Protect Your Heart and Brain

Fine particle pollution has been linked with increased heart health risks and brain health risks down the road.6 But studies show that supplements can help protect against these outcomes. One recent study found that taking B complex vitamins can reduce the effects of air pollution on heart health, helping to reduce damage from PM2.5 exposure by 28-76%.7 Other studies have found that omega-3 fatty acids can help protect against negative heart health outcomes8 and premature brain aging9 triggered by air pollution.

Here’s a short list of recommended supplements that can help you weather the smoke:

Stay safe and healthy!

References:

1. “What’s in wildfire smoke and why it’s so bad for your lungs.” EarthSky Voices, Human World, Sep 2020.

2. Ross, Erin. “How to stay safe in a smoky pandemic: your questions answered, and science explained.” Oregon Public Broadcasting, Sep 2020.

3. Xiao Wu, Rachel C. Nethery, Benjamin M. Sabath, Danielle Braun, Francesca Dominici. “Exposure to air pollution and COVID-19 mortality in the United States: A nationwide cross-sectional study.” medRxiv 2020.04.05.20054502; doi: https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.04.05.20054502

4. Chang-Mo Oh, In-Hwan Oh, Bong-Keun Choe, Tai-Young Yoon, Joong-Myung Choi, Jihyen Hwan. “Consuming Green Tea at Least Twice Each Day Is Associated with Reduced Odds of Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease in Middle-Aged and Older Korean Adults.” The Journal of Nutrition, Volume 148, Issue 1, January 2018, Pages 70–76, https://doi.org/10.1093/jn/nxx016

5. Whyand, T et al. “Pollution and respiratory disease: can diet or supplements help? A review.” Respiratory research vol. 19,1 79. 2 May. 2018, doi:10.1186/s12931-018-0785-0

6. de Prado Bert, Paula et al. “The Effects of Air Pollution on the Brain: a Review of Studies Interfacing Environmental Epidemiology and Neuroimaging.” Current environmental health reports vol. 5,3 (2018): 351-364. doi:10.1007/s40572-018-0209-9

7. Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health. "Vitamin B diminishes effects of air pollution-induced cardiovascular disease." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 12 April 2017. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/04/170412111211.htm>.

8. Tong H, Rappold AG, Diaz-Sanchez D, et al. “Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation appears to attenuate particulate air pollution-induced cardiac effects and lipid changes in healthy middle-aged adults.Environ Health Perspect. 2012;120(7):952-957. doi:10.1289/ehp.1104472

9. George, Judy. “Omega-3s May Protect Brain from Air Pollution.” Medpage Today, July 2020