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How to Breathe with Air Pollution

by Hope Gillerman

Where I am, in California, the air quality is changing day to day, hour by hour. My heart goes out to those in the Northwest, where it can be difficult to breathe, with smoke and particulate matter filling the air. 

Your breath is everything. You can protect yourself from pollution if you know what to do. If you are in the Northwest, or any area affected by smoke, take these warnings seriously. Track your air quality (I use IQAir.com to track mine.) You may even need to evacuate. 

Rethink what you are inhaling: Keep candles, incense, air fresheners off. Under normal conditions, some people find they can use essential oils to help cope with allergies; for others, essential oils exacerbate their allergies or asthma, especially if overused. Listen to your body. If air quality is poor or severe  (i.e., with high levels of PM 2.5 particulate, see the ranges below), adding essential oils to the air is like adding more particles for your lungs to cope with. Don‘t challenge your body--protect it. 

Focus on the breath to stay calm. The best way to do this is to slow your exhale to calm your nervous system and let your body do its natural clearing of the lungs, by exhaling slowly. If you feel congested, you can do this deep-breathing method in a hot shower. To breathe better in bed, lie on your side or even on your belly.

And if you have a source for N95 masks, share it on social media so that those who need masks can get them. Stay safe.

Wildfires release a range of air toxins including particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10), carbon monoxide, and nitrogen dioxide. Among these, fine particulate matter, or PM2.5, is most often present at the riskiest levels to health. 

PM2.5 is airborne matter measuring 2.5 micrograms or smaller, such as near microscopic particles of dust, soot and ash. It is categorized by its size, rather than its chemical composition because PM2.5 is so small, it can penetrate deep into the lungs, and even into the circulatory system, causing far reaching health effects. Exposure to PM2.5 has been linked to adverse health effects including chest pain, arrhythmias, bronchitis, heart and lung disease, cancer and early death. 

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) uses an air quality index (AQI) to translate pollutant concentrations to a relatable scale for risk to health. The scale ranges from 0 to 500, where 0 to 50 is considered “good,” 51 and 100 is “moderate,” 101 to 150 is “unhealthy for sensitive groups,” 151 to 200 is “unhealthy,” 201 to 300 is “very unhealthy,” and 301 to 500 is considered “hazardous.”

  •         Stay current with real-time and forecast air quality conditions. Air pollution is fast-changing and dynamic, particularly when originating from active wildfires. It’s important to stay informed of the changing risks in the air to guide exposure-reducing actions. 

  •         Take action when AQI levels exceed 100 Close windows and doors and seal door gaps and window cracks, possibly with damp towels. Set air conditioning (HVAC) systems with fresh air intake to their recirculate mode. Use air purifiers or high-efficiency HVAC filters to remove fine particles from the air. Run the air cleaning systems as often as possible, on the highest fan speed. 

  •         Avoid strenuous outdoor activity Reduce the amount of smoke you inhale by slowing down activity and controlling the rate of inhalation (e.g. walk, don't run). Wear an N95 pollution mask if possible when outdoor air exceeds AQI 150.                

  •         Evacuate when necessary When air quality levels become “very unhealthy” or "hazardous" and are expected to remain unhealthy for several hours, evacuate if possible. Use the air quality forecast provided on IQAir’s city and station pages to guide evacuation decisions.

Hope Gillerman is a Holistic Healer, H. Gillerman Organics, founder and "Essential Oils Every Day”, author

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