I am a bit of a broken record these days, telling clients, friends, co-workers, students, strangers—anyone who will listen, really—about the importance of understanding air quality, especially during fire season in the west.
There are a couple of good resources for checking local air quality online, including airnow.gov. My favorite, however, is BreezoMeter. Do yourself a favor and go download this app on your smartphone immediately! Keep in mind that neither source is perfect for real time conditions. These apps are taking huge amounts of data and putting it through algorithms to produce assessments of air quality nearby. I often cross-reference the two, and I know that micro conditions can vary substantially depending upon topography and air currents. There are often pockets of much better (or much worse) air nearby.
As I write this, the closest fire burning to Santa Rosa, California is likely over 50 miles away. Many of us think that if the sky is at all blue and the fires aren’t in the immediate vicinity that we’re in the clear. Or that if we don’t have asthma or other breathing difficulties, that we’re not affected. Unfortunately, this is not so.
My local air quality index (AQI) is currently 39 out 100—in the “Low” category. As you scroll down in the app (in iOS—the app for Android doesn’t have this feature), you’ll see that the dominant pollutant is “PM10,” and it is at an unsafe level for human health.
Let’s take a moment to understand the different pollutants and what they mean for those of us working, exercising, or just spending time outdoors.
PM10: PM stand for “Particulate Matter.” PM10 means particulate matter 10 microns and smaller. Microns are a tiny unit of measure—for your reference, the diameter of a human hair is about 70 microns across! This is coarse dust pollutant that comes of combustion (like wildfires), as well as construction and agriculture. It also includes pollen, mold and bacterial particulate. This is a form of inhalable pollution that is more easily screened out with a mask, and our body does have some capacity through the action of nasal hairs, mucus, and lung cilia, to remove and protect against PM10.
PM2.5: This is particulate matter 2.5 microns and smaller—not visible to the naked eye, except in larger concentrations as haze or smog. Consider this a toxic exposure. The sources are the same as PM10, but PM2.5 are so small that they slip past our first-line defenses such as skin and cilia, and end up right in the blood stream. Often PM2.5 particles are comprised of dangerous substances as human-made materials burn. It is important to remember, however, that even wildfire smoke (as in, just trees and brush) contains many toxic compounds. For example, forests act as “sinks” for heavy metals as polluted rains fall. When forests burn, the heavy metals are released into smoke, which we then breathe in.
This type of particulate poses serious long term health risks—especially for those with respiratory and cardiovascular disease but also for children, pregnant people, elderly, those with compromised immune systems, chronic inflammatory response syndrome (CIRS), and those with chemical sensitivities. When PM2.5 is dominant sensitive folks can feel ill and present with fatigue, headache, nausea, confusion, flu-like symptoms, and brain fog. There are studies linking long term exposure to PM 2.5 pollution with the development of dementia and Alzheimer’s, as well as premature skin aging. I tend to notice some symptoms when PM 2.5 is in the high teens or low 20’s, even though the app doesn’t consider this an elevation.
PM10 and PM 2.5 aren’t restricted to fires; they can be elevated near construction and industrial zones, in cities, and along highways. For outdoor exercisers who run, walk or bike on the roadside, wildfire smoke compounds the exposure. Exerting out of doors increases our uptake of this particulate matter.
What to do If PM 10 and PM 2.5 are elevated: Protect yourself by wearing either an N95 mask when you are outdoors, or my favorite soft mask for non-immediate vicinity fires: https://ellessco.com/myair-mask. If you work outside, these are a must! They offer greater comfort and breathability than an N95 (but don’t offer the same degree of protection, as they don’t seal in the same way). Keep your doors and windows closed, and run a HEPA filter at home. These days, I open my house for a couple of hours in the evening when the air quality tends to be better to cool it off. Then I close it back up and run the air purifiers on high until I go to sleep. Don’t exercise outside until the air quality is better. Run you car AC on recirc so that you are not taking air from the outside in. Remember to get your car air filter changed every couple of months in fire season! You can keep multiple locations in the Breezometer app to see if there are locations near you where the AQI differs—I check the coast to see if I can go hike or walk there on bad air days. When PM 2.5 is high, only an N95 mask will sufficiently protect you from inhalation.
SO2: Sulfur dioxide is a nasty, pro-inflammatory gas that comes from burning sulfur-containing fuels. It can be elevated in urban wildfire. Even short exposure can aggravate lung diseases such as asthma and COPD.
CO: Carbon monoxide comes from the incomplete combustion of carbon-based fuels, and wildfires. It can be found in your home, and is a by-product of car engines and power plants. CO displaces oxygen in the blood and exposure can cause dizziness, nausea and headaches.
NO2: Nitrogen dioxide is another bronchial-irritant gas that is a product of combustion and wildfires. It can cause increased risk of respiratory infections, especially in young children.
O3: Ozone = gases and pollutants + sunlight. As the BreezoMeter app puts it “ozone is one of the major components of photochemical smog.” Ozone is damaging to the mucus membranes, throat, and respiratory tract.
When O3, SO2, CO, or NO2 are elevated, wear a mask and limit your time outdoors!
Don’t despair—protect yourself!
Stay tuned for our next post for commonsense approaches to on-going exposure—because let’s face it, we can’t avoid it all!
Come in and see us for herbal respiratory and nervous system support as these fires continue to burn.