• Julie Figgins

Yearning to Breathe Free: Air Quality & Your Health

Summer wildfires have been ravaging the West in an unprecedented manner for over a decade now. In addition to the tragic losses of life, livestock and property, millions of us are exposed to extremely poor air quality for weeks on end. This poor air quality is a significant health concern to everyone, but especially for high-risk individuals, such as those with respiratory conditions or cardiovascular disease.

The ominous clouds of smoke and dust distribute ash on our gardens and reservoir water supplies. This ash can contain various toxins, depending on the materials combusted. Forest fires release formaldehyde, methane gas, nitric oxide and particulates into the air. Additionally, many forests are managed with aerially applied herbicides and pesticides, with potential for releasing associated toxins during a fire.

Fires that spread into neighborhoods are even more concerning, as many building materials and furnishings contain toxicants. The list below highlights some of the exposures liberated by fires in areas where humans inhabit:

· Lead from paint used in homes built prior to 1978

· Asbestos from insulation or siding

· Formaldehyde and cyanide from particle board furnishings or cabinetry

· Dioxins and furans from combustion of PVC piping

· Styrene gas from combustion of polystyrene insulation

· Hydrogen cyanide from combustion of polyurethane cushions

· Arsenic from copper chromium arsenate (CCA) utility poles

· Mercury from fluorescent light bulbs

· Cadmium and other metals from car fires

· Heavy metals and plastics from the combustion of electronics

· Other persistent organic pollutants (POPs) from perfluorinated compounds in stain protectors and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) in flame retardants

Clearly, the areas closest to the home-site are going to be the most toxic, but these toxicants do get dispersed through the air and distributed as ash on many surfaces.

As with any toxic exposure, avoidance is always the first-choice intervention. Here are some things that can help reduce exposure:

· Wear well-fitted, N-95 masks to filter out most particulates

· Leave shoes outside the door to prevent tracking residue into the home

· Keep the home as dust-free as possible, with a special focus on the bedrooms

· Seal up any windows that allow dust in, with painter’s tape if necessary

· Close the damper to any fireplaces

· Use a high-quality air filter in central-air systems, replacing it at regular intervals

· Use an HEPA plus carbon air filter in bedrooms

· Filter all tap water if it comes from a reservoir

It has been established that many of these toxicants cause oxidative damage and reduce antioxidant stores. Animal studies have shown that Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) can protect against oxidative damage associated with exposure to cigarette smoke. There are some similarities between cigarette smoke and wildfire smoke exposure, so it is plausible that Vitamin C may offer some protection to the oxidative damage associated with wildfire smoke.

There is also substantial research on the polyphenols in green tea and its benefits against air pollution. Evidence suggests green tea polyphenols may reduce inflammation and DNA damage in lung cells, specifically in smokers.

Additionally, exposure to wildfire-derived particulate matter has been associated with declines in glutathione in human lung cells. Glutathione is an important antioxidant that can be supported through various forms of supplementation.

As mentioned above, wildfire smoke is most immediately dangerous to those with cardiovascular respiratory conditions. However, we also see links to increased risk of various cancers with longer-term exposure. A meta-analysis in the Journal of Occupational Medicine showed statistically significant increased risk of cancers such as multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, testicular and prostate cancer, as well as eight others, in firefighters.

Sadly, the pattern of a fire season closing out many of our summers does not seem to be going away. The good news is that there are a few things we can do to reduce risks associated with exposures to wildfire smoke and ash. Thank you to the brave firefighters who risk their lives and health to protect us ~ all of you are true heroes.


Webinar: Environmental Impact from Forest Fire Smoke – a First Aid for Our West Coast Air Quality. National Association of Environmental Medicine, October 27, 2017

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