The World Health Organization has named air pollution as the greatest environmental threat to human health. Wildfires are an increasing part of the problem and their effects are only expected to worsen as climate change continues to alter temperature and precipitation patterns around the globe.
Wildfire smoke is a complex mixture of gases and fine solid and liquid particles. It’s particularly toxic when it comes from burning buildings and manufactured materials like plastics. Wildfire smoke can contain thousands of harmful chemicals like carbon monoxide, phthalates, volatile organic compounds, ozone, persistent organic pollutants, carbon dioxide, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and nitrogen oxides. Studies show a positive correlation between wildfire exposure and respiratory illnesses—including bronchitis, pneumonia, asthma attacks, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)—as well as death. Wildfire smoke also affects the heart and blood vessels throughout the body and brain. A study of people exposed to California wildfires in 2015 found an increase in emergency room visits for cardiovascular problems including ischemic heart disease, heart failure, abnormal heart rhythm, pulmonary embolisms, heart attacks, and strokes.
Now that wildfire smoke is spreading thousands of miles across the United States, reaching areas completely unaffected by wildfires, it’s important for everyone to learn some precautions. Here are six ways that you can minimize the effects of wildfire smoke on your health.
#1 | Know when you need to take action.
Follow the air quality in your area through local agencies or the AirNow website or smart phone application. AirNow is a partnership of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Park Service, NASA, Centers for Disease Control, and tribal, state, and local air quality agencies. You can enter your zip code to view the air quality index (AQI) and trends for your local area. You can also use the interactive map to view air quality at state, national, and global levels. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, good air quality measures up to 50 on the AQI. Levels above 50 may irritate sensitive individuals and levels above 100 can be harmful for pregnant women and their fetuses, children, teenagers, middle-aged and older adults, and people with cardiovascular or lung disease. When the AQI goes above 150 the air is unhealthy for everyone and people should stay inside as much as possible.
If a wildfire is burning near you, follow directions of local authorities and evacuate immediately if you are directed to do so. Be prepared with a disaster kit you can grab on the way out. It should include a first aid kit, identification, important documents, water and food, necessary medications, a list of important phone numbers, flash lights, a radio, extra batteries, a cell phone charger, and survival items like a whistle, pocketknife, rope, and matches.
#2 | Stay inside.
If the air is toxic outside, stay inside, as long as you have not been ordered to evacuate. Keep your doors and windows closed and set ventilation systems to re-circulate. Use high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtration in your home if you can and keep the filters clean. Do not use an air filter that generates ozone. If you have central air or heating be sure to use a filter rated MERV13 or higher. If you do not have air conditioning, you should seek alternative shelter during extremely hot weather because it would be dangerous to stay inside with the doors and windows closed.
#3 | Reduce indoor air pollution.
Keep indoor air as clean as possible. When windows and doors are closed due to poor outdoor air quality, avoid anything that can add fine particles to the air like smoking, vacuuming, cooking on a stove, and using anything that burns like candles and fireplaces. As soon as the air quality improves, open all of your windows.
#4 | Wear the right kind of mask.
Certain kinds of masks can reduce the amount of air pollutants we inhale. Paper masks, surgical masks, dust masks, scarves, and bandanas are better than nothing, but they will not prevent fine particles from entering your lungs. Masks like N-95 or P-100 respirators offer this protection, but only when they fit well and are used correctly.
#5 | Eat a Mediterranean diet.
So far we don’t have any studies showing an association between diet and the health effects of wildfire smoke. But we do have studies showing that the Mediterranean diet can help preserve lung function in smokers as well as people who are passively exposed to cigarette smoke. Researchers found that the Mediterranean diet has a protective effect against the biochemical and molecular processes that can lead to lung disease, cardiovascular disease, and cancer, which they attributed to a high daily intake of vitamins, antioxidants, and other plant-based compounds.
Until we have more studies to better understand how wildfires affect our bodies, it makes good sense that maintaining a healthy diet gives us the best chance of maintaining a healthy body under any circumstances. And it couldn’t hurt. Studies show that eating a Mediterranean diet is associated with a reduced risk of multiple chronic diseases and increased life expectancy.
The foundation of the Mediterranean diet is plant-based foods like vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains, herbs, and spices. The main source of added fat is olive oil. Fish, seafood, poultry, and dairy products are included in moderation while red meat and sweets are only eaten occasionally. This diet is high in fiber, protein, antioxidants, and mono-unsaturated and omega-3 fats. Studies show that diets high in these nutrients may help to modulate inflammation in airways and protect lung function.
#6 | Talk to your doctor about supplements that may be protective.
We also need more studies about the effects of supplemental nutrients on people exposed to wildfire smoke. So far there is some evidence that certain supplements may be helpful. An analysis of more than one hundred research and review papers spanning twenty years found that carotenoids, vitamin D, and vitamin E can help protect against damage from air pollutants that trigger asthma, obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and lung cancer. Researchers found that vitamin C, curcumin, choline, and omega-3 fatty acids could play a protective role as well. Talk to your naturopathic doctor about which supplements and dosages may be right for you.
Whyand T, Hurst JR, Beckles M,and Caplin ME. Pollution and respiratory disease: can diet or supplements help? A review. Respiratory Research. 2018;19:79. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5930792/
Reid CE, Brauer M, Johnston FH, Jerrett M, Balmes JR, et al. Critical Review of Health Impacts of Wildfire Smoke Exposure. Environmental Health Perspectives. 2016;124(9):1334–1343. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5010409/
Cascio WE. Wildland fire smoke and human health. The Science of the Total Environment. 2018;624:586-595. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29272827/
Wettstein ZS, Hoshiko S, Fahimi J, Harrison RJ, Cascio WE et al. Cardiovascular and Cerebrovascular Emergency Department Visits Associated With Wildfire Smoke Exposure in California in 2015. Journal of the American Heart Association. 2018;7(8):e007492. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29643111/
United States Environmental Protection Agency. Patient Exposure and the Air Quality Index. [Web page]. EPA website.
https://www.epa.gov/pmcourse/patient-exposure-and-air-quality-index Accessed July 26, 2021.
Sorli-Aguilar M, Martin-Lujan F, Flores-Mateo G, et al. Dietary patterns are associated with lung function among Spanish smokers without respiratory disease. BMC Pulmonary Medicine. 2016;16,162. https://bmcpulmmed.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12890-016-0326-x
Vardavas CI, Flouris AD, Tsatsakis A, Kafatos AG, and Saris WHM. Does adherence to the Mediterranean diet have a protective effect against active and passive smoking? Public Health. 2011;125(3):121-8. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21276993/
Tosti V, Bertozzi B, and Fontana L. Health Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet: Metabolic and Molecular Mechanisms. The Journals of Gerontology. Series A, Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences. 2018;73(3):318-326. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29244059/
Whyand T, Hurst JR, Beckles M, and Caplin ME. Pollution and respiratory disease: can diet or supplements help? A review. Respiratory Research. 2018;19:79. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5930792/