Air Pollution & Your Health

The California wildfires are spreading with unprecedented devastation. Though the severity of the current wildfires is unprecedented, they are hardly unexpected. Longer fire seasons and greater areas at risk were forecast years ago, with rising global temperatures from climate change (1, 2). Today we have a number of studies on the effects of air pollution to inform us on the best ways to protect ourselves.

California’s wildfires. They’re big. They’re scary! Yet they are also necessary. Did you know that forest fires replenish the soil with nutrients from charred vegetation, allowing for restoration? And that the water that vegetation can no longer use fills streams for animals to drink? Within proper parameters, wildfires are necessary and beneficial to our ecosystem. As our climate warms, and wildfires become more common, we must adapt develop strategies to dampen their more detrimental effects.

When fires encroach upon our communities, destroying homes and buildings, and inhibiting our ability to enjoy the wonderful, therapeutic benefits of being outdoors, it’s particularly difficult and potentially harmful to us humans. In particular, the burning of homes and buildings can release toxic chemicals such as asbestos, dioxins, carbon monoxide, metals, plastics, herbicides, pesticides and particulate matter, which travel through the air for hundreds of miles. Horrible, right? Well, did you also know that our bodies are impressively equipped with mechanisms to protect us from air pollution?

The first line of defense against chemicals and particulates are the fluids that cover your lung lining and respiratory tract. They create a physical barrier, preventing tiny, toxic chemicals from entering into the body! These fluids are high in antioxidants, proving an initial neutralizing defense against these toxins. Some of the antioxidants found in respiratory tract fluid include glutathione, vitamin E, and vitamin C.

Another defense comes from our liver, which helps our body eliminate thousands of toxins every day. In fact, the more often our liver is exposed to certain chemicals, the more efficient it becomes at eliminating them. However, if our body gets overwhelmed by a toxic load that exceeds our physical capacity, our body’s natural defenses will be unable to keep up and this leads to symptoms. In the case of smoke and particulates, we can have burning eyes and trouble breathing, or even more serious cardiovascular symptoms if over prolonged periods.

Here are some things you can do to help optimize your body’s defense systems and improve your home air quality:

  • Supplementation! There are a number of nutrients which have been found to support detoxification of airborne pollutants and decrease associated health risks. Check in with your provider if you’d like to know more – always remember that nutrients and supplements in therapeutic doses should be prescribed and taken with supervision from a license care provider.
  • Keep doors and windows closed as much as possible.
  • Use a high quality air purifier indoors, especially in your sleeping area. The air purifiers we recommend are made by Blue Air: www.blueair.com and IQ Air: www.iqair.com. If you don’t have an air purifier available, an acceptable hack is to tape a MERV13 filter  to a box fan.
  • Try to use air conditioning instead of opening windows during warmer weather, if power use recommendations for your area permit.
  • Consider relocating temporarily if you have significant risk of illness with exposure to smoke.
  • Hydrate well, consider adding electrolytes to your water or drinking coconut water.  Generally adults should drink 1/2 of their body weight in ounces.
  • Limit physical exertion, including reducing the intensity of your work-out if outdoors.
  • If you must be outside, use a particulate respirator. This will have either “N95” or “P100” printed on it and have two straps for a secure seal around your face.
  • Emotional support: If you or your loved ones have been significantly impacted, please give special attention to your emotional health. The National Center for PTSD has tips for coping with emotional trauma after a wildfire.

Additionally, a number of nutrients have been found to support detoxification of airborne pollutants, attenuating associated health risks. A few of these include:

Substance

Effects

Food Sources

B vitamins (B6, B12, methylfolate)

Reduce the risk of the effect of fine particles on DNA methylation and improve markers of cardiovascular health (heart rate, heart rate variability (HRV), white blood cell count) (7, 8)

Vitamins B6 and B12 are found in fish, meat and poultry

Methylfolate (Vitamin B9) is found in dark green vegetables, and fermented food like kombucha and the Indian idli

Vitamin C

Reduces airway irritation, improves airflow (9)

Amla, Kiwis, Guava, Papaya, Strawberries, Mango

Curcumin

Reduces oxidative stress (10, 11, 12, 13)

Turmeric 

Omega 3 (EPA/DHA)

Anti-inflammatory, Protection from reduction in HRV with exposure to ultra-fine particles (14, 15)

Algae, anchovies, salmon, sardines and mackerel

N-acetylcysteine

Antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, increases glutathione levels, mucolytic (17)

Sulphur-containing foods such as garlic and brassica family (e.g., broccoli) may support N-acetylcysteine and glutathione production (18)

Sulforaphane

Increase antioxidant enzymes, increase in enzymes involved in mitigating damage from air pollution (19, 20)

Broccoli sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, cabbage, bok choy and watercress

Insoluble fiber

Supports the liver in eliminating toxins. Helps regulate bowel movements. Having daily bowel movements is key to clearing pollutants, especially heavy metals (21, 22)

Insoluble fiber isn’t broken down by the gut and absorbed into the bloodstream. Sources of insoluble fiber include: the stalks, skins, and seeds of nuts, seeds and vegetables

This article is not intended to provide medical advice. Nutrients and supplements should be prescribed and taken with supervision from a licensed medical care provider

The problem of air pollution and its effects on humans is truly of global concern, affecting urban areas around the world. Let us all do our part to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, promote good forestry practices, and reduce our own footprint.

References

  1. Flannigan M, Cantin AS, de Groot WJ, Wotton M, Newbery A, Gowman LM. Global wildland fire season severity in the 21st century. For Ecol Manage. 2013;294:54–61.
  2. Westerling AL, Hidalgo HG, Cayan DR, Swetnam TW. Warming and earlier spring increase western US forest wildfire activity. Science. 2006;313:940–943. 
  3. Hutchinson, J. A., Vargo, J., Milet, M., French, N. H., Billmire, M., Johnson, J., & Hoshiko, S. (2018). The San Diego 2007 wildfires and Medi-Cal emergency department presentations, inpatient hospitalizations, and outpatient visits: An observational study of smoke exposure periods and a bidirectional case-crossover analysis. PLOS Medicine, 15(7). doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1002601
  4. Reid 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. doi:10.1289/ehp.1409277
  5. Du Y, Xu X, Chu M, Guo Y, Wang J. Air particulate matter and cardiovascular disease: the epidemiological, biomedical and clinical evidence. J Thorac Dis. 2016;8(1):E8-E19. doi:10.3978/j.issn.2072-1439.2015.11.37
  6. Cross, C. E., Vliet, A. V., O’neill, C. A., Louie, S., & Halliwell, B. (1994). Oxidants, Antioxidants, and Respiratory Tract Lining Fluids. Environmental Health Perspectives, 102, 185. doi:10.2307/3432237
  7. Zhong, J., Karlsson, O., Wang, G., Li, J., Guo, Y., Lin, X., . . . Baccarelli, A. A. (2017). B vitamins attenuate the epigenetic effects of ambient fine particles in a pilot human intervention trial. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(13), 3503-3508. doi:10.1073/pnas.1618545114
  8. Zhong, J., Trevisi, L., Urch, B., Lin, X., Speck, M., Coull, B. A., . . . Baccarelli, A. A. (2017). B-vitamin Supplementation Mitigates Effects of Fine Particles on Cardiac Autonomic Dysfunction and Inflammation: A Pilot Human Intervention Trial. Scientific Reports, 7(1). doi:10.1038/srep45322
  9. Whyand T, Hurst JR, Beckles M, Caplin ME. Pollution and respiratory disease: can diet or supplements help? A review. Respir Res. 2018;19(1):79. Published 2018 May 2. doi:10.1186/s12931-018-0785-0
  10. Waly, Mostafa I., Badreldin H. Ali, and Abderrahim Nemmar. “Acute effects of diesel exhaust particles and cisplatin on oxidative stress in cultured human kidney (HEK 293) cells, and the influence of curcumin thereon.” Toxicology in Vitro 27.8 (2013): 2299-2304.
  11. Huang, K., Shi, C., Min, J., Li, L., Zhu, T., Yu, H., & Deng, H. (2019). Study on the mechanism of curcumin regulating lung injury induced by outdoor fine particulate matter (PM2. 5). Mediators of inflammation, 2019.
  12. Mahjoub, S., & Moghaddam, A. H. (2011). The Role of Exercising and Curcumin on the Treatment of lead-induced Cardiotoxicity in Rats. Iran J Health Phys Act, 2(1), 1-5.
  13. Hosseinzadeh, S., Roshan, V. D., & Mahjoub, S. (2013). Continuous exercise training and curcumin attenuate changes in brain-derived neurotrophic factor and oxidative stress induced by lead acetate in the hippocampus of male rats. Pharmaceutical biology, 51(2), 240-245.
  14. Tong, H., Rappold, A. G., Diaz-Sanchez, D., Steck, S. E., Berntsen, J., Cascio, W. E., … & Samet, J. M. (2012). Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation appears to attenuate particulate air pollution–induced cardiac effects and lipid changes in healthy middle-aged adults. Environmental health perspectives, 120(7), 952-957.
  15. Brigham, E. P., Woo, H., McCormack, M., Rice, J., Koehler, K., Vulcain, T., … & Bose, S. (2019). Omega-3 and omega-6 intake modifies asthma severity and response to indoor air pollution in children. American journal of respiratory and critical care medicine, 199(12), 1478-1486.
  16. Li, X. Y., Hao, L., Liu, Y. H., Chen, C. Y., Pai, V. J., & Kang, J. X. (2017). Protection against fine particle-induced pulmonary and systemic inflammation by omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. Biochimica et Biophysica Acta (BBA)-General Subjects, 1861(3), 577-584.
  17. Claudia Ramos Rhoden, Joy Lawrence, John J. Godleski, Beatriz González-Flecha, N-Acetylcysteine Prevents Lung Inflammation After Short-Term Inhalation Exposure to Concentrated Ambient Particles. Data presented in part at the Annual Meeting of the American Thoracic Society 2003, Seattle, Washington. Toxicological Sciences, Volume 79, Issue 2, June 2004, Pages 296–303, https://doi.org/10.1093/toxsci/kfh122
  18. Abdalla FH, Bellé LP, De Bona KS, Bitencourt PE, Pigatto AS, Moretto MB. Allium sativum L. extract prevents methyl mercury-induced cytotoxicity in peripheral blood leukocytes (LS). Food Chem Toxicol. 2010 Jan; 48(1):417-21.
  19. Lampe JW, Peterson S. Brassica, biotransformation and cancer risk: genetic polymorphisms alter the preventive effects of cruciferous vegetables. Journal of Nutrition. 2002;132(10):2991–2994. 
  20. Riedl, M. A., Saxon, A., & Diaz-Sanchez, D. (2009). Oral sulforaphane increases Phase II antioxidant enzymes in the human upper airway. Clinical Immunology, 130(3), 244–251. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.clim.2008.10.007
  21. Berglund M, Akesson A, Nermell B, Vahter M. Intestinal absorption of dietary cadmium in women depends on body iron stores and fiber intake. Environmental Health Perspectives. 1994;102(12):1058–1066. [PMC free article] [PubMed] [Google Scholar]
  22. Rowland IR, Mallett AK, Flynn J, Hargreaves RJ. The effect of various dietary fibres on tissue concentration of chemical form of mercury after methylmercury exposure in mice. Archives of Toxicology. 1986;59(2):94–98. [PubMed] [Google Scholar]
  23. Patrick, L., & Crinnion, W. (Directors). (2019, January 3). Wildfire Smoke Challenges and Solutions for Human Exposure [Video file]. Retrieved August 22, 2020, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9dz5lnY-aS4 Environmental Health Symposium

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Shreya Soni ND

Shreya Soni ND

Dr. Soni is a naturopathic doctor practicing in San Jose, CA. She is an expert at investigating underlying causes of complex health issues with a major emphasis on endometriosis. Her training includes naturopathic medical residency from the University of California Irvine, doctorate in naturopathic medicine from the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine, and biomedical engineering from the University of Virginia.

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