The Hazards of Wildfire Smoke and Air Pollutants

In Canada and the US, many areas of each country are experiencing unprecedented forest fires causing poor air quality levels that are incredibly harmful. The tiny particulate matter in the air penetrates into the lungs and ultimately into the bloodstream affecting every cell in the body. The main reason for the far-reaching damage from air pollution is due to systemic inflammation.

Immune cells think a pollution particle is a pathogen like bacteria, and in turn, stimulates an initial inflammatory response. Inflammation is a positive defense but if it continues, chronic inflammation is entirely another matter! It is most often silent and is fueled continuously by inflammatory mediators such as air pollution, causing systemic inflammation in the organs and tissues. In most cases, we are completely unaware of this slow-burning fire. Stopping the runaway fire is often difficult because the immune system’s fire brigade eventually gets tired of the fight and can no longer defend and prevent tissue damage and progression towards disease. Mounting evidence suggests chronic inflammation is a common underlying cause of most diseases including diabetes, obesity, autoimmune disorders, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and mental health disorders such as depression as well as neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, chronic respiratory diseases, and asthma.

These small particles can also cause more immediate symptoms such as burning eyes, runny nose, scratchy throat, headaches and illness (i.e., bronchitis or pneumonia). They can also worsen chronic heart and lung disease such as asthma, emphysema and COPD. Some people may have more severe symptoms, such as shortness of breath, severe cough, dizziness, chest pain, or heart palpitations.

New research also indicates that the inflammation caused by the toxic particulate matter damages the cardiovascular system increasing the risk of heart attack, and stroke. Stanford University researchers found that those exposed to wildfire smoke had increased infections due to immune-related genetic changes affecting the development and function of T cells, which are an important component of the immune system. The young and the elderly and those with existing lung problems are particularly susceptible and these effects can linger for years.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) air pollution is a “public health emergency” and a “silent killer”. The impact of different pollutants on many ailments remains to be established, suggesting well-known heart and lung damage is only “the tip of the iceberg”.

Wildfire smoke causes episodes of the worst air quality that most people will ever experience in British Columbia. Do not take this lightly and do all you can to protect yourself from the damages of wildfire air pollution.

Foods – Essential Team Members in the Fire Brigade

To reduce levels of inflammation, aim for a food plan that closely follows the Mediterranean diet, which is high in fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, fish, and healthy oils. In addition to lowering inflammation, eating a diet with less processed food can have noticeable effects on your physical and emotional health.

Anti-Inflammatory Supplements – Powerhouse Firefighters

Omega-3 fatty acids: Fighting fire with oils, not water…

Omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), appear to work differently when tackling chronic inflammation. A new study found that not only did DHA have a stronger anti-inflammatory effect than EPA, the fatty acid also reduced levels in most anti-inflammatory proteins whereas EPA did not. EPA did however improve the balance between pro and anti-inflammatory proteins, which is also very important.

Curcumin is the biologically active compound found in turmeric. Evidence shows that curcumin exerts antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and neuroprotective activities. In humans, curcumin taken orally is poorly absorbed and rapidly eliminated, however there are curcumin products that use specific delivery systems to enhance absorption. Talk to the knowledgeable staff at Vitamin Shop about these products.

Boswellia is a great option for reducing inflammation. Inflammation at the cellular level often occurs in a particular inflammation pathway called 5-LOX (5-lipoxygenase which is associated with allergies, asthma, COPD, arthritis, IBS, Crohn’s disease, and colitis. Boswellia is one of the few botanicals that has the ability to fight 5-LOX inflammation.

N-acetyl-cysteine (NAC) is another powerful firefighter gaining attention for the treatment of inflammatory disorders. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which includes bronchitis and emphysema, is a rapidly growing problem because of years of oxidative damage to lung tissue, resulting in chronic inflammatory conditions. The disease is worsened by air pollution and cigarette smoking, but is by no means limited to people with those exposures. With its ability to reduce oxidative stress (free radicals) and prevent chronic inflammatory changes, research is showing that NAC is emerging as a game-changing natural therapy in COPD and other respiratory conditions.

Reducing exposure to wildfire smoke is the best way to protect your health.

  • Portable air cleaners that use HEPA filtration can effectively remove smoke particles from the indoor air. Do your research to find something suitable for your needs.
  • If you have forced air heating, you can use different filters and settings to minimize the amount of wildfire smoke that comes into your home.  
  • Libraries, community centres, and shopping malls often have cooler, filtered air that can provide a break from outdoor smoke.
  • When driving, keep the windows up, the air conditioner on, and use the recirculate setting to limit intake of the outdoor air.
  • The harder you breathe, the more smoke you inhale. Take it easy during smoky periods, consider exercising indoors, and drink lots of water to help your body cope with the smoke.

Do not wait until the symptoms of the ‘silent killer’ of air pollution and inflammation show up. For those who live in areas susceptible to forest fires, be proactive and protect your lungs from some of the devastating health effects of toxic smoke.

References:

Cai S, Chen P, Zhang C, et al. Oral N-acetyl cysteine attenuates pulmonary emphysema and alveolar septal cell apoptosis in smoking-induced COPD in rats. Respirol. 2009; 14(3):354-9.

Chen, H., Samet, J.M., Bromberg, P.A. et al. Cardiovascular health impacts of wildfire smoke exposure. Part Fibre Toxicol 18, 2 (2021).

KAREN JENSEN, ND

Karen Jensen was in clinical practice for 25 years and although she is retired, she continues to write books and educate on the naturopathic approach to wellness. She is author or co-author of seven books, her most recent is Women’s Health Matters: The Influence of Gender on Disease.

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