Keep Breathing this Summer: Protecting your Lungs Around Forest Fire Smoke

From warm and sunny Calgary, I am watching the forest fire season this year with concern.  As a naturopathic doctor who practices family and environmental medicine, I know that smoke from large forest fires can travel hundreds or thousands of kilometers from its source, affecting air quality and contributing to symptoms in vulnerable patients. Local weather patterns can also serve to trap smoke and pollution close to the ground, creating areas of poor air quality during the very time of year when we most want to be outside.

For the time being, Calgary has avoided high levels of fire-associated smoke pollution of other areas in the West.  However, our warm, dry July and lack of rainfall is not helping the crews fighting the fires in northern BC and Alberta, nor helping disperse the smoke that is accumulating around Calgary’s river valleys. Unless there is significant rainfall over the next few weeks, fire-related haze could be with us for most of the summer.

Particles from forest fires are generally less than 2.5 micrometres (PM2.5), which are small enough to penetrate into the lungs and cause symptoms.

Typical symptoms of respiratory irritation from wildfire smoke include sinus and eye irritation, lingering cough, wheezing, and shortness of breath. Young children, the elderly, people with heart disease, diabetes or asthma are especially vulnerable to these effects and should take precautions to minimize exposure to poor quality air.  People should also see their health care provider should symptoms become worse, particularly with a chronic cough, shortness of breath, or chest pain.

There are simple things that people can do ahead of time, however, to avoid exposure to smoke from wildfires and strengthen your lungs and immune system to help decrease symptoms.

Health Canada and the BC and Alberta Centres for Disease Control recommend limiting physical work or exercise outdoors when Air Quality index numbers increase. Wearing masks may be helpful, but there are questions about whether they are effective at filtering out the very small particles associated with wildfire smoke. Better scientific support exists for the use of HEPA air filters for residential use, particularly for people who have existing respiratory problems. Additionally, people should avoid burning candles or incense, or use wood or gas stoves indoors when air quality is poor outside.

To protect your lungs and sinus passages during periods of poor air quality, I recommend drinking plenty of water to keep mucous surfaces and increasing intake of brightly coloured fruits and green leafy vegetables to strengthen the blood vessels surrounding the lungs and help them fight off inflammation. Omega-3 fats from fish, flax, seeds and nuts are also helpful inflammation fighters.   For people with pre-existing asthma or COPD, I also recommend increasing intake of Vitamins C and D, probiotics, the amino acid N-Acetyle Cysteine and concentrated omega-3 fats in the form of fish oil to further strengthen the immune system and decrease mucus accumulation. These therapies we discuss in office, making sure there are no interactions with current medications the patient may be taking.

With global climate change, it is expected that extreme weather events such as warm dry summers and large forest fires will increase. In places with existing pollution concerns due to vehicle exhaust or industrial emissions, adding pollution from forest fires can cause symptoms in many people, and exacerbate existing conditions such as asthma or COPD. The good news is that people can take steps to protect their breathing even if air quality declines, and there is help available to prevent minor respiratory problems from becoming major concerns.

 

Dr. Marianne Trevorrow, ND

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For more information:

Institute National de Santé Publique du Québec.  Health Impacts of Particles from Forest Fires. Retrieved July 8, 2015 from https://www.inspq.qc.ca/pdf/publications/1793_Health_Impacts_Forest_Fires.pdf

BC Centre for Disease Control. Evidence Review: Wildfire Smoke and Public Health Risk.  Retreived July 8th, 2015 from http://www.bccdc.ca/NR/rdonlyres/6505C3A4-A610-4F09-9819-41933C87522B/0/WFSG_EvidenceReview_WildfireSmoke_FINAL_v3_edstrs.pdf

Canadian Lung Association Blog: Forest Fires and Lung Health.  Retrieved July 8th, 2015 from: http://blog.lung.ca/2014/07/forest-fires-and-lung-health/

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