Fire Protection Essentials and Respiratory Health, Part 2 — As the Dust Settles

As I wrote in my first blog on Fire Protection, the smoke that we’re experiencing in the Bay area is filled with the combusted contents of homes and businesses- things like plastic siding, wires and pipes, computers, flame retardants, carpeting with stain repellants like Teflon, lead paint from old houses, pressure treated lumber, and the list goes on. Even when the bulk of the particulate is from burning plant matter, there can be a substantial amount of mercury released into the environment from bioaccumulation. It’s easy to go into freak-out mode here.

I can also find the silver lining in the midst of the devastation, which is an opportunity to realign our priorities and get our houses in order on as many levels as we can.   This is an opportunity for a paradigm shift — to make the changes we’ve each been debating for years, whether it means changing an unhealthy lifestyle pattern, assessing our consumption patterns particularly around the use of toxic materials, and helping to address some of the social and economic issues that are now more acute in our county.

How we take care of ourselves and each other now is one of the most determining factors of our overall health in the future.

Here is my next set of ideas for keeping healthy in the midst of surrounding environmental crisis, with the consciousness that many are without homes and without the time and resources to achieve such a level of self-care.  Let’s all continue to lift each other up in whatever ways we can.

If you haven’t been affected by the smoke, these are good general suggestions for living clean in a world plagued with chemical insults.

Cleaning House

  • As mentioned in my first blog, when the particulate outside is high, avoid drawing air into the house. However, at a certain point indoor air quality can be worse than outside. Watch the wind and particulate reports and invite fresh air into the house when it’s safe out.
  • If concerned about ash particulate in the house, wipe surfaces with a wet rag and wet mop your floor before using the vacuum. Vacuums should have a HEPA filter, and consider replacing it if it’s been a while.
  • If you have curtains or washable rugs, launder them or have them professionally cleaned, particularly if you had left your windows open when the fires hit or if your house is within close proximity to the fires.
  • Take off shoes outside, though you may want to store them inside if it is windy or dusty outside. If you have a side door with a mud room or a clean garage, enter through there instead of opening the door into main living spaces. If you’ve been outside working, avoid bringing dirty clothes into the main living area or bedroom.
  • Take an inventory of other sources of indoor air pollution, and minimize wherever possible. Avoid candles, incense, air fresheners, etc. Limit unnecessary fires in the woodstove or fireplace, which release more particulate into the air.
  • When cooking, limit open-pan frying, which sends more smoke into the air. Instead, use a crock-pot, insta-pot, or old-fashioned stew pot.

Air Purification

  • A HEPA filter is a good start.  However, for the smallest and most dangerous particles, which can find their way more deeply into the lungs, a simple HEPA filter is likely not enough.
  • IQAir has one of the best particle removal ratings and is recommended by some of the top environmental medicine specialists in the country. In addition to the smallest of particles, including those that contribute to gases and odors, it is also capable of filtering mycotoxins/mold.
  • For a more affordable option, AustinAir is a medical grade purification system. It has a combined charcoal, zeolite, and HEPA all-in-one filter, which will also deal with chemicals and odors better than a standard HEPA. Although it doesn’t have as high a particle removal rating for the smallest particles, it has a lower EMF output than IQAir. The filter only needs replacement every 5 years, which partially makes up for the higher cost compared to cheaper HEPA models.
  • While many plants have the ability to clean the air, for those with mold sensitivities, it’s not a good option.

Cleaning the Yard

  • Hose down, rather than sweeping, areas of high use like porches and decks.
  • If you have a veggie garden, spray down the plants to rid them of any particulate.  After the first rains, which will pull more particulate down from the atmosphere, spray them down again.  Wash all produce meticulously before consuming, especially any leafy greens.
  • For future gardening, fast growing leafy greens along with the surfaces of root vegetables may be the biggest accumulators of metals and other toxins.  My thought is to scrape the top layer of soil or add several inches on top in areas where you plan on growing leafies.  Peeling your root veggies may also help mitigate.
  • If you have a lot of ash or if flame retardant was used in your neighborhood, it’s time to put the garden to bed until you have your soil tested and remediated if necessary.  I’m eager to hear from the phytochemists and mycologists out there regarding their mitigation strategies.
  • If you have small children or pets, consider mulching areas of concern. If you have a sandbox with ash in it, consider spraying and scraping off the top layer, or change it out altogether.
  • For your car, wipe the interior plastic surfaces in your vehicle with a damp cloth, and vacuum while wearing a respirator. When the outdoor air is good, open your car windows to ventilate. Change the air filter under the hood of your vehicle, and consider acquiring a more elaborate car air filtration system or a personal air filter.  The latter can also be used on airplanes and in other scenarios where air quality is compromised if you are particularly sensitive.

Personal Hygiene

  • Wash hands frequently and especially before eating or touching any orifice. To limit overall toxin exposure, I recommend washing your hands every time you enter the house, after using electronics (especially computers) and after touching BPA-laden receipts or labels.
  • Avoid conventional hand sanitizers and anti-bacterial soaps like the plague. Triclosan and related compounds have membrane disrupting capacities that actually increase the penetration of toxins on the skin.
  • If you are spending any length of time outside, particularly in dusty areas, cover your body, change your clothes afterward and shower.  Many significant toxins can be absorbed directly through the skin.

Assessing the Damage

  • Our ability to successfully detoxify is influenced by our overall health status — this includes our total toxin load, inflammation levels, the availability of nutrients required for detoxification, genetic predispositions, and our effectiveness at excreting toxins through appropriate channels of elimination.
  • In the longer term, knowing your overall body burden and how well you detoxify can help assess how proactive you need to be. There are a number of functional medicine tests to assess exposure and elimination status for compounds like heavy metals, volatile solvents and parabens (i.e. plastics). Nutritional, genetic and methylation profiles can also help assess detoxification capacity.



  • The health impact of any environmental exposure comes down to the level of the exposure and our ability to detoxify and eliminate what we’ve been exposed to. We are what we don’t eliminate, so we want to make sure those channels of elimination are flowing well.
  • Mucus production is a useful process, as it will help carry particulates directly out of your respiratory tract. Blow your nose and spit out mucus. If you succumb to a respiratory, sinus or other mucous membrane infection such as a yeast infection, this is your body’s opportunity to discharge. Support rather than suppress the process. Depending on your situation, this might mean avoiding the knee-jerk response of taking decongestants, fever lowering agents or antibiotics if they aren’t necessary.
  • Your skin has both the capacity to absorb toxins and to eliminate them.   Sweating is one of the best methods for detoxification. Be sure to rinse afterward in a shower or non-communal tub, preferably with cold water to close your pores afterward.
  • Drink enough water to urinate every 2 hours at a minimum, unless you have a medical reason to restrict water. Hydration is essential both for the detoxification that your kidney performs, as well as for your lymph system. If you are dehydrated, tissues don’t receive as much nourishment, and they accumulate more waste products.
  • Support bile excretion. Toxicants undergo phase 1 and 2 detoxification in the liver, and then the waste is excreted via the gall bladder into the small intestine.   Eating bitter foods and herbs will enhance the excretion of bile — like artichokes, chicory, radicchio, escarole, dandelion root or burdock root. (If you have gallstones, don’t follow these suggestions without first checking with your health care provider).   For more on supporting the liver, see part 1 of my blog on Fire Protection Essentials.
  • Prioritize gut health. If you are not pooping at least once per day or your gut flora is imbalanced, then those toxins that your liver worked so hard to process can be reabsorbed. Soluble fibers can help adsorb toxins, binding them up to carry them safely out of the body. Both insoluble and soluble fiber enhances healthy gut flora, which help us process toxins in the gut. (If you have intestinal problems, check with your health care provider about appropriate fiber recommendations.) If bacterial imbalance is suspected, start with simple flora support such as probiotics and natural ferments like sauerkraut. If there’s a deeper issue, assess and treat it as soon as possible, as gut health is a cornerstone of systemic health.
  • Take long, slow breaths.  Fast and shallow breathing can result in ‘chronic hyperventilation syndrome,” where too much carbon dioxide is released from the lungs, and the shift in blood alkalinity impairs oxygen delivery to tissues.  Chronic hyperventilation promotes sympathetic dominance, aka excessive fight-or-flight responses.  What did I just say? If you breathe too shallowly or too fast, you are more likely to be stressed and inflamed. If you are stressed and inflamed, your body is more susceptible to disease.
  • Your emotions are also an eliminatory pathway — they accumulate when ignored or unexpressed. In addition to healthy breathing, call on whatever tools you have for working through difficult emotions, whether it’s journaling, talking with friends or a therapist, or taking a walk on the beach where the air is cleaner. The more you restore yourself emotionally, the better you are able to be healthy and to help those around you be healthy as well.

Take care out there!


Disclosures:  This blog does not constitute medical advice and has not been evaluated by the FDA. Consult your provider for suggestions specific to your needs and circumstances.