Here in Wisconsin, we had one of the worst air quality index levels ever this past week. Smoke from Canada’s wildfires hung in the air, creating a thick haze. The smoke didn’t bother me, but I assumed that some people would be extra sensitive to it. As the day progressed, I started thinking of ways people might protect themselves from the effects of wildfire air pollution, including the use of supplements or essential oils and other simple choices.
I also wondered, of course, how much of the hysteria about the air quality index was created by simply having an “Air Quality Index” to look at. It would be like having an app that notifies you of each crime as it happens in Minneapolis. Nobody would want to go there. We don’t watch any mainstream media or local news, but I can imagine it was one of the top stories in the news cycle, creating unnecessary fear.
While Canada’s wildfires might be at record levels, it isn’t the first time in history that people have breathed in polluted air. But we’ve been conditioned to fear a lot more about everyday life in recent years. It’s possible our adoption of a “safety culture” has made us more likely to freak out from a day of smoky air, whereas in the past we’d carry on with life without giving it much thought. Whichever the case, there are some things you can do to keep your lungs healthy in the midst of higher levels of smoke.
Use this as a guide when facing a similar circumstance as we were this past week, and remember that I’m referring to occasional exposure to poor air quality from wildfire smoke far away. I’m not referring to how to approach things if you’re right next to the fire.
Wildfire Air Pollution and PM2.5
A raging wildfire, fueled by dry conditions and strong winds, sends billowing plumes of smoke into the atmosphere. This smoke isn’t just a nuisance; it’s a complex mixture of gases and fine particles that can have a significant impact on air quality, both locally and hundreds, even thousands, of miles away.1Liu JC, Pereira G, Uhl SA, Bravo MA, Bell ML. A systematic review of the physical health impacts from non-occupational exposure to wildfire smoke. Environ Res. 2015;136:120-132.
The primary concern regarding wildfire smoke is something known as PM2.5. This term refers to particulate matter that measures less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter. For context, that’s approximately 3% the diameter of a human hair.2“Particulate Matter (PM2.5) Trends”. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 2023. Their minuscule size allows these particles to stay aloft for long periods, infiltrating urban and rural areas alike.
You might wonder, “These particles are tiny. How much harm can they really do?” Don’t let their size fool you. PM2.5 particles are so small they can bypass the body’s natural defenses, infiltrating the deepest parts of your lungs and even entering your bloodstream.3Pope CA 3rd, Bhatnagar A, McCracken JP, Abplanalp W, Conklin DJ, O’Toole T. Exposure to Fine Particulate Air Pollution Is Associated With Endothelial Injury and Systemic Inflammation. Circ Res. 2016;119(11):1204-1214. This can trigger a cascade of health issues, particularly affecting the respiratory and cardiovascular systems.4Reid CE, Brauer M, Johnston FH, Jerrett M, Balmes JR, Elliott CT. Critical Review of Health Impacts of Wildfire Smoke Exposure. Environ Health Perspect. 2016;124(9):1334-1343.
How PM2.5 Impacts Your Lungs
Wildfire smoke, rich in these PM2.5 particles, is particularly problematic for people with pre-existing respiratory conditions such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). But even healthy people aren’t immune to its effects. Exposure can lead to symptoms such as coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and chest pain.5“Wildfire Smoke and Your Patients’ Health”. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 2023.
For people with asthma, exposure to PM2.5 particles from wildfire smoke can trigger asthma attacks, which are periods of severe or worsening asthma symptoms.6Delfino RJ, Zeiger RS, Seltzer JM, Street DH, McLaren CE. Association of asthma symptoms with peak particulate air pollution and effect modification by anti-inflammatory medication use. Environ Health Perspect. 2002;110(10):A607-A617. These particles, once inhaled, can irritate the bronchial tubes, causing them to become inflamed and constricted. This leads to the typical symptoms of an asthma attack: wheezing, breathlessness, chest tightness, and coughing. Furthermore, PM2.5 can increase the severity of these attacks and reduce the efficacy of standard asthma medications.7Orellano P, Quaranta N, Reynoso J, Balbi B, Vasquez J. Effect of outdoor air pollution on asthma exacerbations in children and adults: Systematic review and multilevel meta-analysis. PLoS One. 2017;12(3):e0174050.
For those with COPD, a disease characterized by long-term damage to the lungs that results in reduced airflow, PM2.5 exposure poses a serious threat. The tiny particles can worsen the chronic bronchitis component of COPD, leading to an increase in mucus production and inflammation in the airways.8Schikowski T, Adam M, Marcon A, et al. Association of ambient air pollution with the prevalence and incidence of COPD. Eur Respir J. 2014;44(3):614-626.
This can exacerbate COPD symptoms like shortness of breath, frequent coughing (with and without mucus), wheezing, and chest tightness. In severe cases, it may also lead to exacerbations or flare-ups, which are periods of intense and often sudden worsening of symptoms. These can be life-threatening and require hospitalization.9Ling SH, van Eeden SF. Particulate matter air pollution exposure: role in the development and exacerbation of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Int J Chron Obstruct Pulmon Dis. 2009;4:233-243.
Both asthma and COPD are chronic conditions that can significantly impact your quality of life. Their management often involves avoiding triggers that could worsen symptoms or cause flare-ups, which makes wildfire smoke particularly problematic for people with these conditions.
The effects of PM2.5 aren’t limited to your lungs – these tiny particles can also wreak havoc on your vascular system.
How PM2.5 Impacts Your Blood Vessels
When PM2.5 particles are inhaled, they don’t just irritate the respiratory tract. Their minuscule size allows them to infiltrate deep into your lungs and make their way into your bloodstream. Once inside your blood vessels, they can instigate a series of harmful effects on the cardiovascular system.10Pope CA 3rd, Bhatnagar A, McCracken JP, Abplanalp W, Conklin DJ, O’Toole T. Exposure to Fine Particulate Air Pollution Is Associated With Endothelial Injury and Systemic Inflammation. Circ Res. 2016;119(11):1204-1214.
These particles can induce oxidative stress and inflammation in the blood vessels, disrupting their normal function.11Li R, Kou X, Geng H, et al. Mitochondrial damage: An important mechanism of ambient PM2.5 exposure-induced acute heart injury in rats. J Hazard Mater. 2015;287:392-401. This can lead to endothelial dysfunction, a condition where the inner lining of the small arteries fails to function normally, which is a key early step in the development of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries).12Brook RD, Rajagopalan S, Pope CA 3rd, et al. Particulate matter air pollution and cardiovascular disease: An update to the scientific statement from the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2010;121(21):2331-2378.
Exposure to PM2.5 has also been linked to alterations in heart rate and heart rate variability, which can increase the risk of heart arrhythmias (abnormal heart rhythms).13Pieters N, Plusquin M, Cox B, et al. An epidemiological appraisal of the association between heart rate variability and particulate air pollution: a meta-analysis. Heart. 2012;98(15):1127-1135. Moreover, long-term exposure to these particles can lead to an increase in blood pressure, which is a significant risk factor for heart disease.14Fuks KB, Weinmayr G, Basagaña X, et al. Long-term exposure to ambient air pollution and traffic noise and incident hypertension in seven cohorts of the European study of cohorts for air pollution effects (ESCAPE). Eur Heart J. 2017;38(13):983-990.
Research has consistently shown a correlation between PM2.5 exposure and a higher risk of cardiovascular events, including heart attacks and strokes.15Pope CA 3rd, Turner MC, Burnett RT, et al. Relationships between fine particulate air pollution, cardiometabolic disorders, and cardiovascular mortality. Circ Res. 2015;116(1):108-115.
Other Sources of PM2.5
PM2.5 is not exclusive to wildfire smoke. In fact, these tiny particles are a common component of air pollution from a variety of sources. Here’s a breakdown of where you might encounter them.
- Urban Air Pollution: In urban areas, PM2.5 is a significant contributor to the “haze” often associated with air pollution.16Chauhan AJ, Johnston SL. Air pollution and infection in respiratory illness. Br Med Bull. 2003;68:95-112. They are emitted from vehicles, particularly diesel engines, and from industrial processes. Power plants, particularly those burning fossil fuels, are significant sources as well.17Dockery DW. Epidemiologic evidence of cardiovascular effects of particulate air pollution. Environ Health Perspect. 2001;109 Suppl 4(Suppl 4):483-486.
- Residential Combustion: In many parts of the world, biomass and coal burning for cooking and heating in homes produces PM2.5. This is a significant concern in developing countries where these practices are common.18Naeher LP, Brauer M, Lipsett M, et al. Woodsmoke health effects: a review. Inhal Toxicol. 2007;19(1):67-106.
- Tobacco Smoke: Both first and second-hand tobacco smoke contain high levels of PM2.5. It’s one of the reasons why indoor smoking is such a health hazard.19Öberg M, Jaakkola MS, Woodward A, Peruga A, Prüss-Ustün A. Worldwide burden of disease from exposure to second-hand smoke: a retrospective analysis of data from 192 countries. Lancet. 2011;377(9760):139-146.
- Dust and Construction Sites: Dust from construction sites, roads, and agricultural activities can contribute to PM2.5 levels, particularly in dry, windy conditions.20Viana M, Kuhlbusch TA, Querol X, et al. Source apportionment of particulate matter in Europe: A review of methods and results. J Aerosol Sci. 2008;39(10):827-849.
- Indoor Sources: Even within your home, PM2.5 can be generated by cooking (especially frying), burning candles or incense, and even some types of heating.21Wallace L, Ott W. Personal exposure to ultrafine particles. J Expo Sci Environ Epidemiol. 2011;21(1):20-30.
Being aware of these sources of PM2.5 is crucial in taking steps to reduce your exposure, particularly if you live in an area where these activities are prevalent.
Wildfire Smoke versus Cigarette Smoking
When we think of inhaling harmful smoke, many of us instinctively picture the negative effects of tobacco. Cigarette and cigar smoke are well-known health hazards, packed with a lethal cocktail of chemicals that can harm nearly every organ in the body.22U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The Health Consequences of Smoking—50 Years of Progress: A Report of the Surgeon General. Atlanta: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health, 2014. But how does tobacco smoke stack up against the smoke produced by wildfires?
Both tobacco smoke and wildfire smoke contain PM2.5, but the concentrations differ significantly.
When we talk about PM2.5 concentration, we often refer to micrograms (one-millionth of a gram) per cubic meter of air (µg/m³). This is a standard unit for measuring air pollution.
One cigarette produces about 10 to 14 milligrams (mg) of PM2.5.23Oberg M, Jaakkola MS, Prüss-Üstün A, et al. Second-hand smoke: assessing the burden of disease at national and local levels. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2010. That’s 10,000 to 14,000 µg, all concentrated in a small volume of air. To create a more concrete image, if all the smoke from one cigarette were spread evenly across a 10x10x10 foot room (about 28 cubic meters), the PM2.5 concentration would be 350 to 500 µg/m³. That’s in just one room, from one cigarette. In reality, the smoke doesn’t disperse evenly, and people often smoke more than one cigarette daily, leading to much higher local concentrations.
When the Air Quality Index (AQI) for PM2.5 is between 100 and 200, this corresponds to a PM2.5 concentration between 35.5 and 55.4 µg/m³.”24Air Quality Index (AQI) Basics”. AirNow. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. This is less than the concentration in the room with a single cigarette, and the AQI of 100-200 is considered “unhealthy for sensitive groups” to “unhealthy” for everyone.
So, being in a room with a smoker causes you to inhale about 10 times as much PM2.5 as being outside on the ocassional day the Air Quality Index is 100-200 due to wildfires from Canada or California. I bring up this point because it’s well known that when smokers stop smoking, they can usually restore most of their lung health that’s been damaged from daily exposure to cigarette smoke. We should then expect that people will quickly recover from the effects of occasional exposure to polluted air from wildfire smoke.
Of course, you can still do much to improve your recovery or reduce your exposure, which I’ll cover in the rest of this article.
Tools for Combating Wildfire Air Pollution at Home
Just as wildfires are inevitable in certain ecosystems, exposure to some level of wildfire smoke may be an unavoidable reality for many people. However, there are tools and strategies you can employ to reduce your exposure at home.
Air Purifiers: Air purifiers equipped with High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters are a potent weapon against PM2.5.25Chen R, Zhao A, Chen H, et al. Cardiopulmonary benefits of reducing indoor particles of outdoor origin: a randomized, double-blind crossover trial of air purifiers. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2015;65(21):2279-2287. They work by forcing air through a fine mesh that traps harmful particles such as PM2.5, dust, pollen, and pet dander. When choosing a purifier, it’s essential to get one designed for the size of the room where it will be used.
Furnace Filters: Upgrading your furnace filter to a high-efficiency type can help reduce indoor PM2.5 levels. These filters, often rated with a MERV (Minimum Efficiency Reporting Values) of 13 or higher, can capture airborne particles, including PM2.5.26Fisk WJ, Chan WR. Health benefits and costs of filtration interventions that reduce indoor exposure to PM2.5 during wildfires. Indoor Air. 2017;27(1):191-204. However, you must ensure your system can handle such filters, which can restrict airflow and strain the equipment.
Ventilation: When the air quality outside is good, ventilate your home to exchange indoor air with outdoor air. This can help reduce pollutant levels indoors.27Chen C, Zhao B. Review of relationship between indoor and outdoor particles: I/O ratio, infiltration factor and penetration factor. Atmos Environ. 2011;45(2):275-288. However, when wildfire smoke is prevalent, it’s best to keep doors and windows closed to prevent outside smoke from entering.
Sealing Leaks: Small gaps and cracks in the structure of your home can allow outdoor air (and PM2.5) to seep in. Sealing these leaks with weatherstripping or caulk can improve your home’s ability to keep out fine particles.28Stephens B, Siegel JA, Novoselac A. Energy implications of filtration in residential and light-commercial buildings. ASHRAE Research Project. 2010;1407.
Indoor Air Quality Monitors: These devices can measure the level of PM2.5 in your home, letting you know when levels are high and you need to take additional action.
Supplements and Oils to Reduce the Impact of Wildfire Air Pollution
For most people, the long-term risk of occasional exposure to air pollution is low, but that doesn’t mean you won’t benefit from supporting yourself with natural products. The following are supplements and essential oils that can help protect you from the negative effects of PM2.5.
Vitamin C: As an antioxidant, Vitamin C helps protect the body against the damage caused by free radicals, unstable molecules that can damage cells in your body.29Pisoschi AM, Pop A. The role of antioxidants in the chemistry of oxidative stress: A review. European Journal of Medicinal Chemistry, 2015;97:55-74. These free radicals can be produced in large amounts when your body is exposed to PM2.5. Moreover, Vitamin C plays a crucial role in maintaining the health of your lungs and airways, especially during exposure to pollution. In a study published in Epidemiology, a diet high in antioxidants, particularly Vitamin C, was found to be beneficial in reducing the effects of air pollution in the elderly.30Romieu I, Garcia-Esteban R, Sunyer J, et al. The Effect of Supplementation with Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids on Markers of Oxidative Stress in Elderly Exposed to PM2.5. Environ Health Perspect. 2008;116(9):1237-1242.
Vitamin E: Similar to Vitamin C, Vitamin E acts as a powerful antioxidant that can protect your body’s cells against damage from free radicals. It is particularly protective for your lungs and has been associated with better lung function.31Grievink L, Smit HA, Ocké MC, van ‘t Veer P, Kromhout D. Dietary intake of antioxidant (pro)-vitamins, respiratory symptoms and pulmonary function: the MORGEN study. Thorax. 1998;53(3):166-171. In a study published in The Lancet, adults with higher dietary intakes of Vitamin E had a slower decline in lung function over time.32McKeever TM, Scrivener S, Broadfield E, Jones Z, Britton J, Lewis SA. Prospective study of diet and decline in lung function in a general population. Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2002 May 1;165(9):1299-303.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids: These essential fatty acids have potent anti-inflammatory properties and could potentially offset the inflammatory effects of PM2.5. Omega-3 fatty acids have been linked to improvements in heart and lung health. A study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition found that dietary supplementation of omega-3 fatty acids could help decrease inflammation in the body caused by PM2.5 exposure.33Shahar E, Hassoun G, Pollack S. Effect of vitamin E supplementation on the regular treatment of seasonal allergic rhinitis. Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol. 2004;92(6):654-658.
N-Acetylcysteine (NAC): NAC is an antioxidant supplement that is often used as a medication for diseases like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and to thin mucus in the airways. In a study published in the European Respiratory Journal, NAC was found to reduce symptoms and exacerbations in COPD patients.34Decramer M, Rutten-van Mölken M, Dekhuijzen PN, et al. Effects of N-acetylcysteine on outcomes in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (Bronchitis Randomized on NAC Cost-Utility Study, BRONCUS): a randomised placebo-controlled trial. Lancet. 2005;365(9470):1552-1560. It can also enhance the production of glutathione, a powerful antioxidant in the body, aiding in the body’s defense against damage from PM2.5.35Rushworth GF, Megson IL. Existing and potential therapeutic uses for N-acetylcysteine: The need for conversion to intracellular glutathione for antioxidant benefits. Pharmacology & Therapeutics, 2014;141(2):150-159.
Eucalyptus: This essential oil is commonly used for its respiratory benefits. A primary component of eucalyptus oil, 1,8-cineole, has been found to exhibit anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects, which can be beneficial for lung health.36Juergens UR, Stöber M, Vetter H. The anti-inflammatory activity of L-menthol compared to mint oil in human monocytes in vitro: a novel perspective for its therapeutic use in inflammatory diseases. Eur J Med Res. 1998 Dec 16;3(12):539-45. A study published in Respiratory Medicine showed that 1,8-cineole in eucalyptus oil could help to reduce inflammation and mucus in the airways, which may be particularly beneficial during exposure to PM2.5.37Juergens UR, Dethlefsen U, Steinkamp G, Gillissen A, Repges R, Vetter H. Anti-inflammatory activity of 1.8-cineol (eucalyptol) in bronchial asthma: a double-blind placebo-controlled trial. Respir Med. 2003 Mar;97(3):250-6.
Peppermint: Peppermint essential oil is rich in menthol, a compound that can relax the muscles of the respiratory tract, making it easier to breathe.38Eccles R, Griffiths DH, Newton CG, Tolley NS. The effects of menthol isomers on nasal sensation of airflow. Clin Otolaryngol Allied Sci. 1988 Oct;13(5):391-9. In a study published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, peppermint oil relaxed bronchial smooth muscles, showing it could aid in breathing during PM2.5 exposure.39Inoue T, Sugimoto Y, Masuda H, Kamei C. Effects of peppermint (Mentha piperita L.) extracts on experimental allergic rhinitis in rats. Biol Pharm Bull. 2001 Jan;24(1):92-5.
Lavender: Lavender oil is known for its calming and relaxing properties, but it may also help support respiratory health. A study published in Life Sciences showed that lavender oil can suppress inflammation in the respiratory system, potentially mitigating the inflammatory effects of PM2.5.40Ueno-Iio T, Shibakura M, Yokota K, et al. Lavender essential oil inhalation suppresses allergic airway inflammation and mucous cell hyperplasia in a murine model of asthma. Life Sci. 2014 Jul 17;108(2):109-15.
Tea Tree: Tea tree oil is well-known for its antimicrobial properties,41Carson CF, Hammer KA, Riley TV. Melaleuca alternifolia (Tea Tree) oil: a review of antimicrobial and other medicinal properties. Clin Microbiol Rev. 2006 Jan;19(1):50-62. but it may also offer respiratory benefits. A study published in Alternative Medicine Review indicated that inhaling tea tree oil could reduce the inflammatory response in the bronchial tract, which could be helpful during PM2.5 exposure.42Lis-Balchin M, Deans SG, Eaglesham E. Relationship between bioactivity and chemical composition of commercial essential oils. Flavour and Fragrance Journal, 1998; 13: 98–104.
Lemon: Lemon essential oil is known for its refreshing scent, but it also has antioxidant properties that may be beneficial for respiratory health.43Baylac S, Racine P. Inhibition of human leukocyte elastase by natural fragrant extracts of aromatic plants. Int J Aromatherapy, 2004; 14: 179–182. Lemon essential oil has been shown to reduce stress and improve mood, which can indirectly support overall health during periods of poor air quality.44Kiecolt-Glaser JK, Graham JE, Malarkey WB, Porter K, Lemeshow S, Glaser R. Olfactory influences on mood and autonomic, endocrine, and immune function. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2008 Apr;33(3):328-39.
Thyme: Thyme oil is another essential oil that may support the respiratory system. Thyme oil is often used for its antimicrobial, antifungal, and antiviral properties.45Marchese A, Orhan IE, Daglia M, Barbieri R, Di Lorenzo A, Nabavi SF, Gortzi O, Izadi M, Nabavi SM. Antibacterial and antifungal activities of thymol: A brief review of the literature. Food Chem. 201 In addition, a study published in Planta Medica showed that thyme oil can relax tracheal muscles, aiding in easier breathing.46Boskabady, M. H., Alitaneh, S., & Alavinezhad, A. (2014). Carum copticum L.: a herbal medicine with various pharmacological effects. BioMed research international, 2014.
Frankincense: Frankincense oil has been used traditionally for its anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting properties.47Ammon, H. P. (2016). Boswellic acids and their role in chronic inflammatory diseases. In Anti-inflammatory Nutraceuticals and Chronic Diseases. Springer, Cham. A study published in the Journal of Molecular Medicine found that frankincense oil could suppress inflammation and support immune function, potentially helping in mitigating the effects of PM2.5.48Banno, N., Akihisa, T., Yasukawa, K., Tokuda, H., Tabata, K., Nakamura, Y., … & Nishimura, R. (2006). Anti-inflammatory activities of the triterpene acids from the resin of Boswellia carteri. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 107(2), 249-253.
Remember, when using essential oils, it’s important to dilute them properly, typically with a carrier oil like coconut oil. Always follow the instructions on your essential oils’ packaging and consult with a healthcare provider if you’re unsure about using them. And use only the highest quality, pure essential oils from brands that oversee the entire process, from the planting of the seed to the bottling of the finished product.
Should you avoid all outdoor activities when the Air Quality Index exceeds 100? For most people, the answer is, “no.” Occasional exposure will have little long-term effect on your health. However, for sensitive people, it’s best to minimize your exposure while, at the same time, taking action to support your lung and vascular health. You can do so by using the right equipment in your home to purify the air while using supplements and essential oils to fortify your body.
Don’t let the mainstream media woo you into fear. Just use common sense, and you’ll be fine.