The western states and provinces of North America have seen a large increase in forest fires over the past several years. The Pacific Northwest, California coast, and BC Interior have seen a five-fold increase in forest fires, lasting five times as long and burning through six times as much land area since the 1980s. These fires cause tens of billions of dollars in combined damage and can affect people for hundreds to thousands of miles downwind.
About half of these fires are caused by lightning and half by humans (careless campfire usage, littering cigarette butts). Climate change and global warming are contributing to the increase by providing more persistent hot, dry, windy weather. Rising temperatures also result in more pollen released from plants and longer allergy seasons. This makes summer in affected areas more dangerous for those at risk of asthma, those with heart or lung conditions, and for the very young and very old.
Basic Air Quality Safety Tips
Check pollution and pollen levels as well as air quality and forest fire smoke advisories. Local state, provincial, and city governments often provide daily forecasts and updates online. Don’t exercise outdoors when smoke or pollution levels are high. Drink plenty of fluids. Stay indoors when levels are very high, especially young children and the elderly. When dealing with forest fire smoke, keep windows and doors closed, close fresh-air intakes from furnaces, fireplaces, and stoves. Set air conditioning to recirculate and keep it running to help filter the air. Some air purifiers (high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters) can reduce particulates from smoke in the air, but they tend to be quite expensive. If you must venture outdoors, dust and surgical masks are not effective in filtering out the tiny particulates in smoke. Only respirator masks rated N95 or P100 can filter these out. Consider visiting a shopping or community center that has air-conditioned, filtered air.
Smoke particulates and gases can damage and irritate the respiratory and cardiovascular systems. Long term, they may increase the risk of certain cancers. Normally, cilia, tiny hairs in your airways, and mucus, help trap particulates and coughing helps expel them. The ciliary motion moves the mucus and particles upwards, so they can be expelled or swallowed (known as the mucociliary elevator). Toxic chemicals in smoke from forest fires can increase mucus secretion and thicken it. This leads to mucus being more difficult to clear and decreases cilia numbers and their effectiveness in clearing it. It also causes inflammation in the airways.
To support your respiratory system health, certain herbs in liquid form can be used. Expectorant herbs can help soothe and relax airways to open them up and relieve shortness of breath, liquefy mucus, and stimulate the cough reflex and mucociliary clearance to remove excess, stubborn mucus.
Respir·Essence is a liquid herbal tonic with stimulating and relaxing expectorants. Stimulating ones like elecampane and cowslip primrose help to liquefy stubborn phlegm and encourage a productive cough to remove it. Relaxing expectorants like licorice, thyme, and plantain help to prevent bronchial spasms, loosen mucous secretions, soothe dry cough, and generally relax and open the airways for easier breathing. Nettle has astringent properties and traditionally has been used for seasonal allergy complaints. It’s good to keep several bottles of Respir·Essence on hand during spring and summer just in case you need that kind of respiratory support throughout allergy and wildfire season. Stay safe out there!
Robert Dadd is a Master Herbalist (Dominion Herbal College) with a BA in Communications from Simon Fraser University. His areas of research include adaptogens, probiotics, and essential fatty acids. He is currently the Product Information Supervisor for Flora Manufacturing and Distributing.