In the spirit of preparedness, the most pressing recurring environmental issue we seem to be facing in the Bay Area is smoke inhalation from a new era of statewide (and multi-state) super fires. Below is a detailed preparedness guide for ways to protect yourself, your home, and your family. Unfortunately, there will be a next time, at which point I promise to resend this. However, now is the time to invest in, or save up for, equipment and materials for the next round so you’re not caught off-guard. Some of the information is adapted from here: https://www.naturopathicenvironment.com/free-event-environmental-impact-from-forest-fire-smoke-a-first-aid-for-our-west-coast-air-quality-tuesday-oct-24-2017-530pm-pt/?fbclid=IwAR3DxV_cQ0HW6a0JUafSZxeNWPTSzyssxxrucdhM7Vrd4gdqFqaK4bosZYU
If you have any corrections or updates, please let me know!
- Air Quality and Apps
- Masks and Goggles
- Protective Clothes
- Home Precautions
- Air Purifiers
- Health and Detox
- After the Smoke
- Top 20 Tips
Air Pollution: What are we breathing?
When fires swallow entire neighborhoods and towns, everything in those homes goes up in smoke, literally. We then breathe and absorb what gets blown our way. Think of all the solvents people store in their garages, the cadmium, lead, mercury, dioxins, polymers, etc., in computers, cars, plastics, mattresses with flame retardants (because that’s so helpful), pesticides in wood, and so much more. We are talking about exposure to multiple chemicals simultaneously via multiple routes: the skin, lungs, and ingestion (from exposed food). But before you panic, here’s some helpful information…
IMPORTANT TIP: The warmer you are, the more you absorb through your skin. So, either stay cold (not really), OR, keep the areas of your body with the thinnest skin and most blood vessels well-covered: the eyes, neck, and groin. That means during a smoke-out, wear tight-fitting goggles (vs. glasses), cover your neck, and wear pants, not skirts.
Levels of air pollution are reported in units called PM, which stands for Particulate Matter. These airborne particles, such as dust and liquid droplets, are generally safe at low concentrations and become health hazards at higher concentrations. The number after PM refers to the particle size in microns.
Most research centers and governments around the world monitor PM 2.5, which the body is typically able to clear out on its own at lower concentrations through mucus, cilia, sneezing and coughing. But some scientists are urging increased research and monitoring of the tinier yet abundant PM1 that not only affect the lower respiratory tract, but pass through the blood-air barrier in the lungs, entering the blood as toxins and affecting the cardiovascular system, while impairing regulation of the nervous system.
Clearly, the health risks are higher in areas of China and India, for example, where people endure year-round exposure to shockingly high levels of PM1 and PM2.5 that we experience for only a week or two here, not to say that isn’t serious as well. (http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2013-10/28/content_17061997.htm):
PM = particulate matter; measured in microns
PM 1 = smallest; go deeper in the body (very small)
PM 2.5 – bacteria sized (small)
PM 10 = talcum powder sized (large)
The silver lining of a smoke-out is that no one seems to care if you look like a tricked-out Ghostbuster. In fact, not wearing a mask is being unprepared which is super uncool for your health.
- Cloth masks, dust masks, and surgical masks
These masks are only a tiny bit better than nothing, giving a false sense of security, potentially prolonging outdoor time and toxic exposure.
- N-95 or N-99 masks
These masks are generally the way to go, but with caveats:
- N denotes “non-oil” which means the mask blocks out non-oil-based particles. The number means it blocks out 95% or 99%, respectively, of particles 2.5 microns or larger, but it does not block out gasses. Some masks filter particles as small as 0.3 microns.
- These masks work only if they fit well. For most effective fit, ensure:
- Correct size.
- Matches facial contours.
- Clean shaven skin.
- Has a metal band that can be pinched around the nose.
- Has two elastic bands that go over the head, not looped around the ears, unless the straps are adjustable.
- Disposable masks break down easily and can harbor viruses and bacteria. The conventional wisdom is to wear one per day. So be sure to have a plentiful stash on hand. They can be purchased on-line or at most hardware stores if in-stock.
- Cons - If there is no valve, you reuptake your exhaled carbon monoxide. Especially deleterious for those with asthma. They also fog your glasses, though you should be wearing tight-fitting goggles instead. A wise upgrade would be a mask with CV. Read on …
- Optimal masks:
- N-99 with CV - The C denotes a carbon filter that filters some gasses, while the V stands for valve. Specifically, an exhale valve for carbon monoxide and moisture. These masks can generally be worn for up to 40 hours, while some brands can be reused for up to six months.
- P100 – also good as it filters out 99.97% of both oil and non-oil-based particulates.
- The best brands are:
- Cambridge Mask
- Gas mask respirator – If you are concerned about gasses, then these masks are a consideration. However, you have to know what chemicals you’re filtering out in order to choose the right cartridge or filter for that substance, which can be a tricky process.
- What do firefighters use? SCBA with a supply tank. (Looks like scuba gear.)
- For more details on masks, check out this link:
While you can certainly make do without, if you wanted to go all the way, an outer layer to protect your clothes and skin would be an option. Some good brands:
- Tyvek – good at protecting skin. Smelly when new.
PRECAUTIONS AT HOME
Indoors is the safest place to be during a smoke-out, but a leaky house with no air purification reduces the smoke by as little as 10%. Here are ways to make your home or office as smoke-free as possible.
- Leave shoes at the door. If practical, remove outerwear.
- Focus on the bedrooms for air purification.
- Vacuuming –
- Consider a HEPA air-sealed vacuum (Nilfisk, Airsealed Miele, Electrolux UltraOne Signet and Classic).
- If you have a leaky vacuum, damp wipe your floors. Minimize vacuuming. Do one room at a time and close the door to let the dust settle.
- Leaky windows/ doors –
- Use painter’s tape to seal cracks with ShurRELEASE blue painter’s tape (Lowe’s).
- For leaky windows, you can use a foam-backed poster board and painter’s tape over the whole window.
- Or you can use Tu-Tuf Vapor Barrier – a synthetic sheet that comes in rolls and can be wrapped or taped around leaky areas.
- Stuff towels into any leaky thresholds of exterior doors, or get your doors well sealed before fire season.
- Avoid frying, using candles, incense, smoking, strong chemicals, or gas ovens, as they add air pollution.
- Fireplaces – the house sucks air in via the chimney from the roof where things have settled.
- Close the flue if you have one.
- Use a flashlight to determine how tightly it’s sealed, and block your fireplace with plywood or Tu-Tuf if necessary.
- And remember not to use your fireplace!
- Don’t run exhaust fans in the bathroom/kitchen which suck smoke in from outside.
- Instead, keep the bathroom door open and run a dehumidifier.
- Put an air filter in the kitchen while cooking, or minimize stove-top cooking.
- Furnace –
- Either keep your furnace off until the smoke clears, or make sure you have a clean, high efficiency pleated furnace filter that’s changed at least every three months.
- Recommended for the typical furnace: 3M Ultra-Allergen Air Furnace Filter, rated MPR 1550, which is equivalent to MERV 12.
- The higher the MERV number, the more particles filtered.
- Highest MERV for store-bought furnace filters is 16.
- MERV 10 at least is recommended by the American Lung Association.
- Higher than 11 can put a strain on some heaters.
- Newer homes, or newly remodeled homes, may have central heating with a high level filter rated MERV 17 and up, which removes 99.97% of particles down to 0.3 microns. This does not filter out gasses, however. You may be able to add a carbon filter to your HVAC, such as OdorKlenz-Air for HVAC.
- If there are any gaps around your air filter inside the furnace, use aluminum foil tape around the edges of your filter, like Shurtape AF 973 foil tape (on-line).
- Also check your ducts to tape any leaks. Finally the appropriate use for duct tape!
- Ducts apparently don’t need to be cleaned more than every 3-5 years, if that, depending on your preference. At least according to the EPA.
- How to change your filter: https://globalnews.ca/news/1621011/what-you-need-to-know-about-furnace-filters/
- If you run your furnace to filter the air, run in “Fan” mode. If “Fan” mode is either “Auto” or “On”, choose “On.”
- Keep inside doors open while running the forced air unit so the air circulates through the central register. Otherwise, outside smoke may be sucked in through cracks in windows in rooms where the doors are closed.
- A certified HVAC technician can inspect your heating system and advise on all of the above.
- Home ventilation system –
- If you have a newer or newly remodeled house with a continuous mechanical ventilation system, like a continuous-operation exhaust fan in the laundry room, be sure to turn those off as they bring fresh air into the house, or smoke, as the case may be.
- Once the smoke clears and you’ve cleaned your house of dust, turn back on.
- However, if you live in an ultra-tight home, such as a Passive House, you should keep your ventilation system on.
- Attic/Basement/Leaky floorboards – painter’s tape over any gaps.
- Water filter - for city water exposed to environmental chemicals. Good brands with carbon block filters are Aquasana and Multipure. (Brita does not remove as much.)
- Car - set the ventilation to recirculation mode at medium or high. If the air quality seems to be getting worse, turn it off.
- If you have an air conditioner –
- cool air makes particulates drop to floor and an A/C unit does not suck air in from outside. (Do not using the “fresh air” setting.)
- Make sure cracks around the sides are sealed.
- If you have an air conditioner, make sure you have a good filter (Honeywell) and that the filter has been changed at least every three months.
There are a lot of air purifiers on the market originally designed for allergy sufferers or for “sick buildings” with no natural ventilation. Many of those brands are now capitalizing on a new market around wildfire smoke, making claims that are sometimes misleading. This next section is an attempt to clear up the facts, and help you decide on the best air purifier for your situation.
- Portable air purifiers filter air in one room only. Most important is the bedroom.
- HEPA filters – these filter fine dust (but NOT gasses). All purifiers listed below have HEPA.
True HEPA filters capture 99.97% of all .3 micron particles. (Not “down to .3 microns” or “.3 microns and up” or “as small as .3 microns”)
- Carbon block filters – these filter VOC’s/gasses. The more surface area on the carbon filter the more thorough. (Usually the more expensive purifiers.)
- Many filters combine HEPA and carbon, but not all.
- PECO – Photo Electrochemical Oxidation – destroys particles down to 0.0001 micron and VOCs (gasses). Molekule developed this and is the only brand with this technology.
- Ideally, get an air purifier a little bigger than you need so you can run it on the quieter low settings, which also extends the life of the machine.
- Vacuuming the outside of the purifier and filter can make filters last longer.
- Additional information: https://www.ewg.org/healthyhomeguide/air-filters/#.XDD6Qy2ZOqB
The brands below were selected because of claims to address wildfire smoke, and if they were listed in any of these three air purifier review sites, the first of which I trust the most:
How to choose an air purifier:
If you’re particularly concerned about chemicals in the air, you’ll want a purifier with more robust amounts of carbon, which is more expensive. If the brand you like has just 1 lb. of carbon, call the company to ask about the other filters inside the product and how they perform in comparison, as there may be other technology.
Wifi/Bluetooth connectivity increases cost and emits EMF’s. Most wifi connectivity can be disabled, and some brands offer cheaper models with no wifi.
Optional bells and whistles that don’t necessarily increase cost nor effectiveness, but can be good, include:
- Ionizer function (helps clear EMF’s and particles; essentially ozone-free)
- Filter replacement indicator
- Sleep Mode
- Sensor for auto-adjust
Other considerations are:
- the size of the room
- how sensitive you are to sound volume
- how much the unit weighs for portability
- other purposes besides wildfire smoke
Sooner than later is the time to comparison shop and order since many of these units sell out quickly during fire season when you may have to settle for something suboptimal. Plus, you can use it for germ or allergy season, too.
“I’m overwhelmed. Just tell me which one to get!”
Haha. I get it! Here’s my best recommendation, but you’ll still have to decide:
- Upper range –
- Austin Air HealthMate is the most economical, and also low in EMFs, though noisier at the high setting.
- Otherwise, the Airpura for maximum VOC filtering at $200 more.
- The IQ Air filters very tiny particles.
- The Molekule not only filters but destroys the very very teensiest particles – a consideration for asthma sufferers, though it doesn’t seem to have as much power to quickly address a full-on smoke-out.
- Rabbit Air has the most aesthetic design options. It’s good, but not the most powerful.
- Mid-range - the Coway Airmega seems like a pretty good bet.
- Low-range - the Winnix looks good.
NOTE: If you have to go with a lower-end carbon filter (1 lb.), be sure to change it often. Best to contact the company for their recommendation during a smoke-out and beyond.
Organs affected by smoke:
- With all the chemical toxins in the air, no doubt the liver is involved as well.
- For the love of God, please don’t exercise outside during a smoke-out, even if other crazy people are. Some gyms, yoga studios, or dance studios may have decent air quality and air purifiers. Be discriminating.
- Take your kids on a weekend trip away from the Bay Area if smoke persists. Or check the air quality at kids’ museums where they can run around, at gymnastics or martial arts studios, or a trampoline park.
- If the air quality in your house is good, consider a rebounder (mini trampoline) for you and your kids to jump on. Great exercise and gets the wiggles out.
Prolonged smoke exposure causes oxidative stress and inflammation. Some ways to counteract this:
- Vitamin C - 4 grams/day (3 grams/day maintenance in polluted areas). Citrus.
- Vitamin E – 400IU twice a day. Avocado, almonds, spinach.
- Selenium – Brazil nuts are the best delivery method.
- Polyphenols (antioxidants). You can do one or more of these during and after for a few weeks:
- Green tea – soaked longer – reduces inflammation and prevents DNA damage in lung cells. 1-5 cups/day. And/or green tea capsules – Gaia Herbs brand is very good, 2 caps twice a day. If you have a liver condition, take half as much. If green tea gives you nausea, combine with food to reduce the nausea effects of the tannins, or reduce soaking time, or infuse tea in hot water, dump, then rinse before re-infusing for tea. https://www.webmd.com/smoking-cessation/news/20100112/green-tea-may-cut-smokers-lung-cancer-risk#1
- Resveretrol – anti-inflammatory, reduces oxidative stress. Pomegranate juice is an excellent source, or pills: Pomexcellent by Health Concerns, 1 tablet a day.
- Berry pigments – they contain anthocyanins with strong antioxidant effects. Eat berries, or Gaia Herbs has “Vision Enhancement” – 1 pill twice a day.
- Curcumin (from turmeric) – Use lots of turmeric, or take a curcumin supplement. I carry Curcumin Flow by Health Concerns.
- Liposomal glutathione – glutathione, which is essential for immunity and detoxification, is robbed from the lungs by smoke. Good foods to help the body make glutathione are rosemary and the brassica family (broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale, collards, turnips and greens, bok choy, mustard greens). B complex also helps the body produce glutathione. For glutathione directly, a good product is ReadiSorb. 1 tsp a day in water or juice. https://readisorb.com/product/liposomal-glutathione/
- Drink LOTS of water, especially hot water.
- Green tea
- Chlorophyll (bottled as a liquid – add to water and drink)
- Neti Pot, or NeilMed sinus rinse (available at CVS or Walgreens)
- Saline spray/steams
- Clear Air by Health Concerns for lungs overwhelmed by pollution. (I carry this.)
- Milk Thistle (Silymarin) for the liver.
AFTER THE SMOKE
There is still plenty of toxic residue after a smoke-out, especially when buildings were burned. Some precautions:
- Caution swimming in uncovered outdoor pools. Talk to maintenance about their filtration system and cleaning procedures. Use your best judgement.
- If you grow edibles in your yard, growing squash helps clean the soil – but don’t eat or compost them. Fish bones soak lead out of soil (can buy for soil lead remediation). This might work for cadmium, too? Consider garden soil testing: Berkeley Analytical. They can’t test for everything, however (like flame retardants, phthalates, etc.).
- When buying produce, find out where your food was grown and when.
- It might be good to avoid California wines bottled in 2018-2019 (so far).
Remember that our exposure is but a fraction of what others experience around the globe. We are privileged to have some of the cleanest air, food, and water in the world most of the time. I think we are also very aware during smoke-outs that it could be worse as our hearts go out to those who suffered directly from fire.
Our bodies are also incredibly resilient and strong if cared for. Exercise, eating well, stress reduction, sufficient sleep, and plenty of water powerfully assist our bodies in excreting toxins year round. For most of the year, make sure you’re sweating, getting your heart rate up, and breathing hard several times a week to keep your organs vitalized so your system can better get through a smoke-out when it’s harder to do those things.
TOP 20 TIPS
There’s a lot of information here. So here’s your cheat sheet of the top 20 tips for the next smoke-out:
- Get an app for daily local air quality: https://airlookout.com/
- Have good masks with exhale valve: N-99 with CV or a P100.
- Goggles that fit tightly.
- During a smoke-out, cover your neck. Wear pants, not skirts.
- Remove shoes at home.
- Fix leaks in doors, windows, floorboards, fireplace, or cover with painter’s tape or Tu-Tuf.
- Find out what kind of furnace filter you have, change every three months, and upgrade if necessary to 3M Ultra-Allergen Air Furnace Filter. Run on “Fan” and keep interior doors open.
- Turn off exhaust fans and home ventilation systems that suck in outside air/smoke.
- Avoid frying, using candles, incense, smoking, strong chemicals, fireplace, or gas ovens during a smoke-out.
- Vacuum with airtight HEPA vacuum. If you have a leaky vacuum, don’t vacuum, or damp mop, or vacuum then close the door to let dust settle.
- Get a good water filter to ensure city water is clean: Multipure or Aquasana
- In your car, set the ventilation to recirculation mode at medium or high, unless it makes the air worse.
- Get a good air purifier and use in the bedroom especially:
- Upper range - Austin Air HealthMate most economical. Airpura best for gasses. IQ Air gets tinier particulates. Molekule destroys tiniest particulates.
- Mid-range - Coway Airmega
- Low-range - Winnix HR950
- Do not exercise outside.
- Green tea, pomegranate juice, curcumin, vit C, B complex, vitamin E, Brazil nuts are all excellent antioxidants to counter the toxic effects of smoke exposure. Also Clear Air (Chinese herb formula) to protect the lungs from air pollution.
- Drink lots of water and tea.
- Sauna, sinus rinse, colonics, steaming, saline spray for nasal passages and detox.
- Don’t swim in outdoor pools right away.
- Caution with wine and produce grown in soil exposed to smoke particulates.
- If you grow edibles, grow squash in your yard, then toss in garbage (not compost), to help cleanse soil.
Oh … and always be sure to vote! Climate change is real, and we need policies to reverse it, as well as smart forest management and accountability from utility companies. Thanks for being proactive to help take care of our planet, and for doing what it takes to be prepared, not scared.