How to protect yourself while the world is burning

Every culture that used indoor fire for heat and cooking put ventilation in their buildings, for obvious reasons. Our evolutionary history, both the human and non-human animal aspects, says to be concerned when there's this much smoke in the air; those of us who watch the birds and deer see that they too are responding to this—and not happily. Public health organizations aren't putting out particularly useful information other than to stay indoors, use HEPA filters, etc. and for those who have a lung or circulatory condition or are otherwise devitalized or vulnerable: elderly, very young, etc. to be especially conscious. Are those really the only groups of people that are affected by this? (Nope.) And if not, what are the health issues caused by forest fire smoke and what can be done to counteract them?

What's in that smoke?

plus perspectives on treatment

1. Natural products of combustion and particulate matter

Fires of even "clean" wood (free from man made chemicals) produce smoke with varied particles and gasses. Even otherwise inert particulate matter is inhaled and ends up somewhere in the airways, from the hairs of the nose, to the mucus of the sinuses and throat, to the branches in the lungs. The airways are "designed" to catch particles via those hairs and sticky mucus, ideally higher up, where the exit route is closer—because one of the body's strategies is to get it right back up where it came from, via a cilia-mucus escalator: mobile hair-like structures on the cells lining the airways rhythmically beat the trapped debris/mucus combo, transferring it to where it can be sneezed/snotted out or swallowed.

Artificial cilia modeling real cilia, whose vids are generally less clear. (Credit to Zvonimir Dogic at Brandeis University)

Another vid, because they're both too good and I couldn't choose.

Real cilia, in the fluid channels/ventricles of the brain instead of the airways. A/C (on the left) functioning properly; B/D (on the right) not. You can see how much of a difference the tiny cilia make. (Credit to Banizs, et al.)

The smallest particles are the most dangerous, because they can move into the deepest parts of the lungs, with the tiniest branches, where oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange into and out of the blood. The foreign material, in addition to physically blocking areas of exchange, causes an immune response in the lungs: natural chemicals and immune cells flood the area, creating inflammation, edema, and increased mucus as an attempt to remove the particles and rebalance the system. This is the predominant reason that those with lung and circulatory issues are advised to take greater care when there's a lot of smoke in the air: if their ability to exchange or transfer oxygen is already hindered, how much capacity do they have left before important things start to crash?

This is also why sports practices and matches are cancelled (or should be): the more deeply and heavily someone breathes with so much particulate matter in the air, even if they are healthy, the more it gets into the lungs, and the more work the body has to do to get rid of all that. Work means inflammation, using up nutrients and energy to do that instead of other things, etc. Energy and the ability for a body to do something do not come from a vacuum.

unclogging the airways

This information is not intended for the severely or even possibly ill. If you fit the list that your local public health authority is concerned about regarding forest fires and smoke in the air, these treatments may be useful for you, but may also be harmful.
Check in with, and follow the instructions of, an appropriately trained health care provider who knows your personal scenario. Feel free to print out and take these recommendations with you for them to assess suitability for you. This applies for all recommendations in this article and will be posted again at the bottom for redundancy's sake and absolute clarity—
oxygen levels are nothing to fool around with.

To help the escalator to remove particulate matter, you've got to encourage and optimize your snot, which for most folks comes down to:

1) Hydration; be sure that you are drinking an adequate amount of spring or similar quality water for your size, other health conditions, etc.—probably more than you are drinking now.

2) What your body is choosing to do with the water that it has; a pinch of powdered marshmallow root (Althaea officinalis, not the modern candy) in all of your drinking water adjusts your body's water balance to produce more fluid at the mucus membranes, helping dried out, junked up, ash-filled airways to moisten and flow more easily.

3) Allowing the process to happen, with the understanding that in this case, more mucus is a positive and useful response to your body given a certain stressor; so blow your nose instead of sniff, cough material up and spit it out, and don't use decongestants. Certain herbs in the tea formula below are able to promote loosening of mucus and the cough reflex to promote the strength and efficacy of this route out, but first, info on what else is in the smoke, because the tea addresses that too.

2. Manmade/processed toxins and others that bypass the airway's mucus trap

In a world where our air, water, and soil are heavily polluted, it's false to assume that our forests are not also suffering from toxicity, and they release that material when they burn. One study, for example, found that an average of 44 tons of mercury are released every year into the atmosphere from fires (a small percent agricultural; mostly wildfires) in the United States alone.

Mercury is not a natural element in plant life or the soil generally. While some mercury is released by volcanic eruptions and ocean vents, it predominantly arrives in the atmosphere after being dug up, processed, added to commercial and industrial processes, and let fly into the air and water. It is absorbed by plant material and soil, and vaporizes in the heat of wildfires (more extensive detail on these interactions in the article linked to above, for the interested), accompanying the smoke of the fires wherever it goes. This and many other toxins are not necessarily caught in the cilia/mucus trap described above.

Dealing with this kind of damaging effect of forest fire smoke is not very different than dealing with other toxicities that we are exposed to in modern life. If your overall vitality and maintenance detox to manage the thousands of manmade chemicals that we are exposed to on a daily basis—an onslaught of toxicity in an amount unseen before the industrial revolution, and even completely different types of chemicals than what we evolved with, is on point, you may not need to do much else. If this isn't something that you pay much attention to though, this is an invitation to consider that and to bring some practices into your lifestyle to improve your health in the long and short term.

but I'm not sick...

You may or may not be aware of being sick due to toxicity related factors, but consider this analogy, common in naturopathic offices: imagine that you are, or have, a rain barrel. What fills up the barrel is anything that stresses your system: active or latent infections; toxic occupations, hobbies, or living spaces; poor nutrition/diet, structural stressors from imbalanced posture, scar tissue, a sedentary lifestyle, etc.; unresolved traumas and false beliefs about oneself; dislike of one's job, spouse, station in life, parents, etc.; transgenerational trauma from your family line, etc. etc. etc.

A person can be cruising along without significant illness, so long as the surface of the rain in the barrel is beneath the edge, but when one last stressor comes in and the barrel starts to overflow, then a person is "sick", and usually, they're pretty sure that it was that last thing (the moldy house, the tick bite, the viral infection, the divorce, etc.) that caused it, but it's REALLY what's filling the rest of the barrel. Humans are hardy animals and generally, one thing, however severe, is not enough to take us down. For it to appear that way, we have to be weakened or vulnerable in some way.

Wading through forest fire smoke, under a red sun and moon, waking up to ash on the car—all of these represent a problem that is a significant, if temporary, addition to the rain barrel. It will push some small percent of people over the edge. Even if you are not in that small percent, it makes sense in this time, to make sure that you're not: to identify what's in your barrel and to do what you can to ease those things, avoid other stressors, lie low, take it easy and take care of yourself, in order to pull the surface of the water down a bit to accommodate the unavoidable excess volume from this fire season.

targeting the body's detox mechanisms
to reduce the smoke's addition to your barrel

Standard basics in this scenario are:

1) Liposomal glutathione: a compound used all over the body to neutralize toxins and get them moving out.

2) Vitamin C; this is one of my favorite brands; also effective at neutralizing toxins on a chemical level, especially in times of acute exposure. Eating high quality, nutrient dense foods will also up your amounts available of vitamins, minerals, and amino acids, needed for the chemical pathways that provide the physical mechanism to remove toxicity.

3) Intestinal adsorbers, like high-quality zeolite, citrus pectin, and charcoal to bind material released by the liver/gall bladder into the gut in order to prevent reabsorption and transfer it all the way out via the stool; see this page for a more detailed discussion on how to choose one and use them safely.

4) Keep up your basics: lots of high quality water, make sure you're pooping at least daily, and up your sauna use, if you have access to one (see this page for maximizing detox via sauna use). It's all about effectively getting the material you're breathing in, out, via the stool, urine, stool, sweat, and airways.

5) This herbal tea formula, designed to both improve the movement of mucus/debris up and out and to help the body clear those toxins that get past the cilia and into the circulation, by supporting the liver and gall bladder:

Wildfire tea

Equal parts, all either fresh or dried, as available, and finely chopped:

Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) leaf
Plantain (Plantago spp.) leaf
Elecampane (Inula helenium) root
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) root
Burdock (Arctium lappa) root

Pour approx 1 cup boiling water, per 1 TB of the combination, over the herbs and steep covered for 15 minutes before drinking. Drink 1-2 cups/day while smoke is in the area and for a few days following.

The more knowledge and experience you have with herbal teas, the more you can modify and fine tune this formula to maximize medicinal efficacy (decocting the roots, for example, instead of steeping) and to match your personal taste (like adjusting ratios for flavor and constitution). There is a strong tradition of the "folk method" in herbal medicine, where once the basics of ethics, safety, and efficacy are established, precise measurements are tossed out, in favor of using what you have, as it feels right to use it, and leaving fine pharmaceutical-like details of dosing elsewhere.

This version can accommodate about anything you have access to, whether it's bulk dried product ordered from Mountain Rose, Starwest Botanicals, or your local herb shop, fresh herbs from your backyard, or a combo. If you are an inexperienced wildcrafter, dandelion and plantain are a great place to start, but even with these herbs, make sure that you understand all of the appropriate ethics and safety concerns with harvesting your own plants, described by excellent herbalists, Jim McDonald and Howie Brounstein, here and here.

Emotional support through transformative times

Fire, from an elemental perspective, represents transformation. Transformation tends to require the death of the old in order for something new to be born, and even while we can look forward to a spring, the death involved in the transformation, and the period of uncertainty of chaos before the new dawn has fully arrived, is often difficult to experience. Flower essences are adept at helping people move through emotional blocks and difficult times with greater efficiency and insight. While everyone has a personal response to traumatic conditions, that would be best met by a personalized essence prescription, these are a few that are good for a large number of the people who are experiencing the kind of transformation symbolized and actualized by the fires now. Consider looking through their photos and descriptions to see which, if any, particularly feel right to you. Flower essences are potent, but not harmful. If you really need a personalized version, there won't be any harm in taking one of these six.

Desert Gold
Heavenly Bamboo
Transition combination (listed in the pet section but good for humans too!)
The Sacred Masculine combination
Wound Healing combination
Trabadelo combination

Flower essence update for the 2018 fire season

While everyone's experience is individual, there are also global and regional trends of what's emerging for people; and what's emerging on a large scale, emotionally and spiritually, to be dealt with is different in 2018 than it was in 2017. Because of that, we've added another set of flower essences, that might resonate more with folks' current experiences, though last year's may still seem to fit best.

Arbor Garden combination
Sweet Olive
Violet Transmuting Flame Violet
Purple Viper’s Bugloss from Aptera, Crete
Pearly Everlasting

The material above is not meant to be taken as medical advice, nor is the information here complete enough by itself to make accurate or wise treatment decisions. Please talk with an appropriately trained healthcare provider before using these medicines at home, especially if you are in a population that is vulnerable to forest fire smoke; check with your local public health authority if you are not sure.