Everybody breathes. We are born, in most cases, with the capacity to breathe in ways that nourish our bodies and minds. When we are breathing well, breath enters the body with almost no manipulation or control on our part. Then, as breathing moves unrestricted, breath and body become attuned to one another and we abide in a natural state of harmony, making life choices that enhance health and well-being.
As the years go by, through compensations triggered by trauma, stress, and adapting to pollutants, we begin breathing in ways that are inefficient and not in harmony with our body’s ability to optimize health. Our breathing becomes dysregulated, impeding homeostasis and, thus, health. Often, we’re unaware there’s a problem until our breathing becomes difficult or illness sets in. Regaining health begins when we learn to recognize some of the habits that interfere with healthy breathing. Two of the most common are shallow breathing and holding our breath. Gaining a felt sense of the rhythm of our breathing and its potential to provide life-sustaining nourishment can, quite literally, change our lives.
Wildfires damaging the air we breathe
I live on Vashon, a small island in Puget Sound near Seattle, where I teach individuals, groups, first responders, and others how to restore healthy breathing habits. This has been my occupation for 30 years. In the summer of 2018, wildfires on the mainland blew in so much smoke that we couldn’t see ten feet in front of us. Looking up, the sun was bright red. I knew the fires weren’t on our island, yet my animal instinct was terror. In the Western U.S., the average wildfire season is now 78 days longer and burns more than twice than in 1970, likely due to climate change.
As I write this essay in late October 2019, fires are raging on the West Coast, with more than 200,000 people having to be evacuated in Northern California and more today in and around Los Angeles. People in faraway places are being warned of “rivers of smoke” that can travel great distances from the origin of the fire. And, as Vin Gupta of the University of Washington writes, “We need to stop looking at wildfires [simply] in terms of houses destroyed and recovery dollars spent. They also cause irreversible health damage from air pollution.”
The smoke from the fires in the Artic this summer traveled seven time zones. During the summer of 2019, more than 100 intense, long-lasting fires have been observed in the Arctic Circle. Breathing the air from these fires is the equivalent of smoking a half a pack of cigarettes and day and can cause irreversible damage. In June 2019, the Artic fires release as much CO2 as Sweden releases in a year. As our air becomes less breathable, understanding the science of respiration—knowing how to breathe effectively and how to create a clean, safe environment at home—can help, but remedial responses like these don’t hold a candle to re-creating an atmosphere of clean air.
Almost everyone experiences air pollution
A prominent real estate agent on Vashon recently announced she was moving to the Olympic Peninsula because the air here had given her COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). So, I began to track air quality on our island—and worldwide—daily. To my horror I discovered that according to the World Health Organization, 91 percent of the world’s population lives in places where air pollution exceeds safe limits. Shanghai, Beijing, Los Angeles, Delhi, and many other cities have unhealthy air almost daily. This summer, the air quality even in North Pole, Alaska, became extremely hazardous for a few days. On some days, delivery trucks’ diesel fumes here on Vashon Island tip the scales, while in Delhi, people insert filters into their nostrils and wear masks. According to the National Parks Conservation Association, the air quality in 85 percent of U.S. National Parks is “unhealthy.” A study coauthored by the U.S. National Institutes of Health showed that in Shanghai, college students who were given air purifiers for their rooms for 48 hours demonstrated clear cardiopulmonary benefits. Those who didn’t developed inflammatory damage to their lungs, heart, and blood vessels. It doesn’t take long and can happen anywhere. Ongoing exposure to unhealthy air kills one in six people worldwide.
The symbol PM2.5 (“particulate matter 2.5”) refers to tiny particles or droplets in the air that are two-and-a-half microns in width or less. There are about 25,000 microns in an inch. The largest of these particles are about 30 times narrower than the width of a human hair. PM2.5 causes inflammation, which gives rise to acute and chronic respiratory disorders, lung cancer, heart attacks, strokes, and an increased risk of diabetes. Polluted air has become the fifth leading cause of premature death worldwide, contributing to 7 million deaths and a loss of 103 million years of healthy life worldwide. London researcher Sefi Roth found that on days when the air is most polluted, students have the worst test scores, and their scores are elevated when the air is clean.
Microplastics are also wreaking havoc
In addition, microplastics, tiny plastic fragments less than five millimeters in length, are now in the air and the oceans. Recent reports show that the air above the Pyrenees and the Rockies is polluted with microplastics. A 2018 French study shows that 29 percent of fibers in indoor air are microplastics. Results from researchers at McGill University in Canada state that humans eat an average of 5 grams of plastic each week, the equivalent in weight of one credit card. The newest beach in the world, on the Island of Hawai‘i, formed by nature last year following the eruption of the Kīlauea volcano, is already filled with microplastics. A University of Wisconsin study showed that the average adult inhales 989 microplastic fibers in a 24-hour period. They also found the presence of microplastics in 97 percent of tumors dissected.
Microplastics are biologically persistent, which means the body cannot dissolve the chemical toxins they carry. When released in our bodies, they are neurotoxic, injurious to nerve impulse transmission. They lodge in lung tissue, resulting in lesions that can cause breathlessness, persistent inflammation, lung disease, and lung cancer. In addition, they can disrupt hormone regulation, induce reproductive toxicity and gene mutations. They can pass into the bloodstream and cause cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease and have been found in the placenta of pregnant mothers. Children and babies are the most vulnerable, playing on the floor where microplastics settle as dust. And yet, most science reports state that we don’t yet know the health effects on the body of microplastic found in our food, air, and water supplies.
Air pollution at the root of growing health problems
Air pollution is likely a causative factor in many inflammatory diseases that are being labeled idiopathic, of unknown origin. When the air is unhealthy or smells bad, a healthy response is for our lungs to limit their breathing capacity, which results in us learning to be shallow or mouth breathers. It’s not an anomaly to get to the point of breathlessness, possibly expressing as asthma, anxiety, sleep disturbances, generalized aches, pains, high blood pressure, heart abnormalities, mental fatigue, and other symptoms when the air is toxic and our internal stress and external environmental conditions do not support ease. The current rise in childhood and adult-onset asthma is letting us know that the air we’re breathing has become unbreathable.
Nearly every news story and thoughtful conversation about global climate change focuses on the ominous impacts of increased carbon in the atmosphere—ice caps melting, sea levels rising, out-of-control weather systems leading to forest fires and floods, heatwaves and blizzards. But we hear little about the direct effects our changing atmosphere is already having on breathing and the consequent health. We hear the words air pollution, but unless we live in a city with off-the-charts toxicity, we may not realize that our health and our breathing are already affected. A recent study shows that children living near highly trafficked roads have diminished cognitive capacities, presumably from fossil fuel emissions.
Polluted air is everywhere, and our bodies are already feeling the effects. For people to get the message that change is needed now, the effects of breathing foul air must be recognized as highly dangerous and one of the results of climate change. This is not a distant possibility. We can work with health care professionals to address trauma-related breathing disorders, but to address atmospheric health, we need activism. Knowing the effects that poor air quality has on our children, the elderly, those with health conditions and sensitive airways, the poor and the homeless has the potential to bring everyone into the vast global grassroots movement to reverse climate change and clean up the air we share.
How to improve your air quality
There are ways to mitigate poor air quality, although they are far less effective than leaving fossil fuels in the ground. When the air turned bad on Vashon in the summer of 2018, I made sure I used only my nose for breathing. The human nose traps particulate matter greater than .5 microns (PM.5), combining them with mucous for elimination. I rinsed my nose after coming in from outside. This provided a little help, but unfortunately, smoke and the gases from smoke (including carbon monoxide) are less than .5 microns, and go right into the lungs, heart, blood vessels, and other organs. So I needed more protection.
I purchased an indoor air quality monitor to track the air throughout our home and a purifier for each room to filter the smoke, gases, and particulate matter smaller then PM.5, adding a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter with an activated charcoal filter to eliminate odors, smoke, and gases smaller than .5 microns. I bought masks rated by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) at N99, which means they can filter up to 99 percent of PM.2.5 from the air, each with a release valve to remove excess heat and moisture while exhaling and allowing additional activated charcoal to be inserted. All these precautions can be put into place starting at around $50 except the air monitor. They ranges from $150 and up.
To ensure that my home was smoke-ready, I created what the EPA calls a “Clean Room,” one that is smoke, gas, and particulate matter-free. The air monitor gave me the information to ensure that each room was clean. I checked for leaks at the windows, and closed all vents open to outside air. And I placed a towel at the bottom of the doors to the outside when I was indoors and at the bottom of the door on the outside when I went out.
During the two weeks there was smoke in the air, I also limited smoke from grilling, frying, and baking, which can bring indoor air quality to hazardous levels in a matter of minutes. Opening windows was not an option, so I used a microwave, steamed some foods, and ate other foods that didn’t need to be cooked.
With all this in place, I used the skills I’ve learned as a breathing educator to protect my lungs and heart to the extent possible. When we mouth breathe, we invite debris from the air directly into our lungs and heart. Mouth breathing cannot trap air pollution, and it triggers the autonomic nervous system (parasympathetic, fight-or-flight), putting the body on alert for threat and creating a fear response.
Breathing can also be constricted by body tension. The tenser we become, the less ability we have to breathe in a relaxed way. A tense body is less flexible and has less internal space, so the lungs have a tougher time bringing in enough air for us to feel satisfied. When there’s more tension and less space, we breathe more rapidly and more in the upper chest. When we breathe in this shallow way, less oxygen is delivered to the cells, and we become fatigued and out of breath. Another response in smoky conditions is to reduce physical activity. This is not a time for exercise or extensive housecleaning. So I stayed quiet, sitting in a comfortable position so my lungs were not compressed by my belly. With less physical stress, I automatically breathed less.
When we’re breathing less while relaxing comfortably, it’s important to slow our breathing, which brings in less air per minute, reducing the amount of particulate matter entering our lungs and giving the body a chance to self-regulate and restore breathing harmony. Notice the movement of breath during each inhalation and exhalation and observe how the body moves through each cycle. It’s not about breathing “correctly.” Trying to do it right usually just creates tension. Noticing the movement of breath and body, our breathing slows down naturally and mitigates some of the adverse effects caused by tension within and pollution in the air. Allowing the exhale to complete itself usually makes the exhale longer, which has a calming effect. The heart slows down, the nervous system settles. When we’re able to sense our biological rhythm and hear our own heartbeat, we bring forth awareness of an alive, breathing body.
So, yes, there are ways to minimize the damage being done to our lungs in the short run with filters, monitors, and conscious breathing. But most important is to renew our appreciation of the sacredness of breath and to drop the notion that we can endure the dystopian future we’re headed toward. A massive environmental and lifestyle shift is needed now as Greta Thunberg and so many others are passionately advocating if we don’t want to wear apparatuses to filter the air we’re making unbreathable or live in oxygenated bubbles. Feeling how atmospheric changes are already underway and how they are already affecting our well-being can be a key to unlock denial and support the massive effort needed to enact a Global Marshall Plan on a getting-a-man-to-the-moon-scale Green New Deal.