Forest Fires, Smoke, and Breathing:
What To Do When The Smoke Comes
My guest today is breath and movement expert Robert Litman. Robert Litman is a certified breathing behavior analyst. He integrates several movement and breath disciplines, who take a Continuum and the Duggan/French Approach to Somatic Pattern Recognition, to create what he calls The Breathable Body, providing guidance and tools for restoring healthy breathing rhythms, helping people with disorders such as asthma, anxiety, allergies, panic attacks and sleep apnea. And really for anyone to improve structural alignment, efficient body mechanics and personal growth. And today we’ll be talking about how to make it safe to breathe when the air is not clear. Something we are needing here on the West Coast more and more.
Hello, Robert. Hi, Sharon. Good afternoon. You know, this is the third time you’ve been on Passing for Normal, because your guidance and perspective is so vital to the most essential area of change there is namely how we are breathing.
I totally agree with that. Since the onslaught of global warming and smoke and fires last year in California and Washington, it’s just become more obvious that a lot of political actions that we’re taking in the world today really are based in the fact of can we breathe better Breathing is the most essential thing we can do. It is the thing that is at risk. For many people on the planet.
There are over 25 million people who suffer from asthma. Who are you know, when there’s any pollution in the air have a really difficult time and breathing.
And every family I talked to and all the people I talked to, somebody always says, I have a friend or I have a relative or I have a niece or I have a nephew who suffers from asthma. Everybody knows somebody who has difficulty breathing.
Right, and in the cases of wildfires and that you are experiencing up in Washington and that we certainly have been experiencing in the last, you know, terribly in the last two years. Everyone is having trouble breathing.
Yeah, it was really spooky. I live on an island, which is about a 15-minute ferry ride off the coast of West Seattle. And the sun was just bright red. And I swear I couldn’t see but 25 yards in front of me and there was no smoke on the island. It was all coming from British Columbia, Eastern Washington, Western Washington. And it was because we live in the Puget Sound and have a bowl of mountains all around us and it was just accumulating here. And I got in touch with the fact that oh my god, I am terrified that if this got any worse. I wouldn’t be able to breathe having been asthmatic and recognizing a deep-seated fear that I am labeling primordial fear. Like I’m an animal in the jungle with the jungle being on fire and running for my life and realizing I have really nowhere to run, and I don’t know what’s coming and I can’t see it but I know right now, I can’t breathe.
I started to take up the campaign about it’s not only about the fires but it is how fearful we are inside and whether we can recognize that fear. Is there something we can do to ameliorated and also cope with the fear? To learn how to settle ourselves down in the middle of something very frightening.
Yeah, that’s fantastic. You know, I was going to say that I live in Los Angeles and I was very close to the Woolsey fire last November that was in Malibu and the air was completely filled with
smoke and I felt frozen. Certainly staying inside but I just didn’t even know where to go. What to do you know how to manage. And whether or not the fire was going to be coming.
So I’m so glad to be talking to you and have you providing some information for anyone who’s listening about how to do exactly what you’re saying. How to settle yourself and how to attend to your breathing in the situations that not only bring up fear, but that inhibit our ability to breathe fully.
So can you talk about, you know, what are some of the effects that we experience when we’re breathing smoky air or extreme pollution?
One of the things that I find in doing research about wildfires, is also the constituency of the particulates that are in the smoke.
It’s depends on what’s actually burning. There are hydrocarbons and formaldehyde and burning the plastics that are in buildings. So it’s a very it’s different for every area fire but the most important thing is to be able to eliminate the smoke. We need to be prepared fpr smoke. Anybody I construction knows you wear a mask and we see people in airports wearing masks, but there are very specific masks that are needed for wildfires and for smoke and those are rated by the government as N95 to N99. They can be purchased on Amazon or your local pharmacy or hardware store. They have to really fit really well. They have a piece of metal around the nose and have to two straps. One strap will not do. You have to be clean shaven. Beards are little pinprick sticking up and pushing the mask just a little bit away from the face in which case the Smoke will get underneath the mask. Interesting, right? As well as it’s probably gathering you know, particles in the beard. , I wanted to mention also that the time to purchase these masks if before the fire season. All the masks were sold out everywhere and people were offering to go out of the area and buy them and bring them back for people.
Inn any emergency the time to get what you need is beforehand and not when everybody else suddenly needs it as well.
That’s true. And so there are some in N95 masks that you can buy by the dozen and they only last for eight hours. They’re about $12 for about a dozen or 10 of them. But then there’s also a mask made by 3M. And I forget the name of the of the company, but they’re on Amazon for upwards of 30 to $40. And they have washable inserts so you can clean them and wash them and reuse them. But the ones that are really valuable are the ones that have the little filters on the side, little circular filters. So the air can be exhaled more easily, and the mask doesn’t collect water vapor making it harder to breathe through. And one of the things that happens when you wear a mask pulling air in and out through a mask is much more difficult than just breathing in regular air.
You get a shorter breath when you are wearing a mask. When the smoke is in the air, reduce your activity levels. If you reduce your activity level, then you reduce the frequency and the depth of breathing. So it’s very important to be really quiet when smoke is in the air in your own home.
Not only is quiet but you know you think one of the things you could do today perhaps is vacuum the house and things like that. You have to make sure you do not vacuum when the smoke is around because it stirs it all up. And you want to eliminate any grilling of cooking in the house because it is creating more smoke. Smoke has already permeate through the house from outside. So a lot of things you have to take into account but yes, you’re right, you must prepare beforehand. And then I also would suggest wearing one when there is no smoke so you can feel what it’s like get used to the idea and really understand how you’ll have to behave when the smoke is actually there.
Good idea. And so then what about filters for your home? Are they helpful? Yes, they are helpful and they are rated.
Look for a CADR (clean air delivery rate) number. Smoke is usually taround point three microns. So you have to have a filtering system that actually can filter down that small. It doesn’t take the gas out of the air and so filters that have HEPA filters and charcoal in them are useful. And from what most of my research shows that if you have a 200 square foot room, you’re trying to keep the smoke out, you want to get one that’s rated for 600 square feet. This is going to be so much more intense when the smoke is around. So you want to get as three times the amount of filter that’s going to work for three times the size of the room you’re actually trying to use it.
And obviously to keep your windows shut
If your window shut and you have air conditioning that will help. They have filters for air conditioning is based on a higher Merv rating that are more pleated and are more effective., It’s better to have the more effective filters in your air conditioning. You can do online for to do it yourself filters where you put them around the outside of your air conditioner. And they kind of create a little filter box of filters outside on the air conditioner. The air conditioner through your house is already being filtered before it comes in the room.
Lots of be lots of be prepared for and have alternative plan. Know where in your area you can go that might have air conditioning and air filters if you don’t have some of these things. On Vashon the library which is just built a couple of years ago is a very effective air conditioning system in it so people can go to the library or to the supermarket or the new art center has air conditioning too. But you know, we’re usually have cooler weather here, so most people don’t have air conditioning. So knowing where your resources are so you can go to them.
Right go get some fresh air, which also speaks to the fact that I’m going outside and getting in my car. You can buy air filters for your car. So that while you’re driving the air is being filtered into your car as well. Right and what you’re talking about is not just when the fire is close by.
You are really in a state of emergency. When the smoke is lingering in the air for a very long time, either during a fire that’s at a distance, or one that is, you know, taking a very long time to be put out, like what was happening in Northern California.
This past fall there, the air in Northern California was just smoky for a very, very long time,
even in areas where the fire was not coming close, like in San Francisco itself.
Yeah, and one of the things you can do for yourself also, most people have smartphones. And if you don’t you have it on your computer. You can go to air quality by the government, or there’s an app from the iTunes store called air visual. And it gives you an hour by hour rating of what the air is like in your area. So if you don’t even know what’s going on outside, you can just look on your phone and find out what’s going on. I know you’re in Los Angeles, and I know it’s not good.
Right now the air quality in Los Angeles is graded as number 89. Anything over 50 becomes a moderate 50 to 100. So the air in LA right at the moment is moderately healthy. And most people like yourself who don’t suffer from respiratory disorders, it’s fine. But somebody with COPD would know right away the air is moderately healthy. You can track the air yourself so you know what’s going on.
So we’ve been talking about the air itself and how to filter between you and the air. But so what about within my own body within my own breathing? How can Ibuild a more effective response when my breathing is challenged?
That’s a good question. And I appreciate you asking it and so I can answer is the first thing of course, the first line of defense is the guardian of the lungs, the nose.
The three most common things do we know about the nose is that it filters 95 to 98% of the particulates out of the air, usually larger particulates. It humidifiers and sets the right temperature for the air for the lungs. So it’s essentially important when the smoke is in the air to not use your mouth to breathe because they will have no filtering effect. Everything that’s in the air goes directly right into your lungs. And the difficulty with that is that sometimes that smoke smells really bad and you don’t want to smell it. So you know, you think you’re opening your mouth you bypass smelling. This take that stuff directly into your lungs, and that’s the worst thing you can possibly do. So that’s the first step. And the first line of defense for any kind of pollution in the air or any kind of general breathing and well. The nose is for breathing and the mouth is for eating. You breathe through your mouth as often as you eat through your nose. It’s a good thing to remember.
It’s easy to remember ‘cuz it’s funny, but it’s true, and humorous. And the other thing to do is to pace yourself in whatever activity you’re doing, whether it’s cooking or whether it’s walking from room to room, that you do it at a pace that allows you to continue to breathe through your nose.
If you find yourself breathing through your mouth, again, you are moving too quickly. And you need to slow your movement so your nose can keep pace with your with your activity level.
Those are two very important things. And when there’s smoke in the air, you want that activity level to be really quiet. Like how quiet are you talking about?
Well, if I found smoke is my air around my house like I did last year, I would just be sitting on the couch being really quiet, not even watching TV, just relaxing my body on to a place where I feel like I’m supported and comfortable and let my breathing slow down and just hang out. Maybe
read a book, I find that reading a book often slows my breathing down. Watching TV has the effect of speeding your breathing up. The images move so quickly. Your body’s trying to keep up with that. So breathing tends to accelerate when you’re watching TV, and especially if I’m watching reports about the fire, right? That’s right.
Going to make you more scared. And the you know, the other big piece, of course, that when we know when we see something really threatening in our world, like a bear when we are hiking, we’re going to take a big breath through our mouth, to put us into fight or flight so that we’re on alert and we’re very focused and need to run or fight if we are really in immediate danger for our lives. And so every breath you take through your mouth, you trigger the nervous system deep to be a little bit more on alert and mobilized. And you know, sometimes that’s really good. If you’re really wanting to mobilize and focus on something, but if you’re trying to relax your body and not be mobilized, you really want to keep your mouth closed because otherwise it revs up the nervous system.
Right? So there’s fight and flight but there’s also freeze.
There is also place where you becoming immobilized, right? And I can’t make a move at all right now. I noticed for myself that in the presence of this heavy smoke, I felt frozen.
Like I didn’t really know where to go what to do.
Yeah, that’s the mental side of it. The other side of the frozen is that it’s also making you be very still, which is a very effective strategy against threat.
You could use that immobilization. Re contextualize it to Oh, I’m immobilizes comes to the time that I really need to be quiet and rested.
Oh, wow, that’s a that’s a great insight. And I know that you talk about in terms of our physiological responses to fear that it’s not just real fear the bear is at my door, but it’s also the same exact response if I have imagined fears.
That’s right. And so when smoke is around, the thing that I find frightening when there’s smoke, there’s fire, but if I don’t know where the fire is, I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how close it is. Is it going to be near me any minute what is going to happen? That’s where that primordial fear came from. It’s like, oh my gosh, it could be encroaching, and I will not be able to breathe. I could suffocate from what’s going on and I have no idea what’s going on. So you have to tune into the radio or the TV. Stephen Porges who created the Polyvagal theory talks about neuroception when our neurology is much more aware of what’s going on even before we’re conscious of it. I think that’s what’s going on for me when the smoke is here, and my nervous system is very much in touch with a real threat. And we’re frightened. Right. We’re frightened in the moment. We’re also frightened of what the implications of these events are right in terms of a larger scope of climate change. And you know, they say that the wildfires are only going to be getting worse here on the on the west coast. And so denial comes in. I’m immediately afraid, but I’m also in denial about what the larger implications are and how does that affect my breathing? I think the denial keeps us a little bit away from the fear. I think when we break this denial, and we recognize how frightened we are, it then really becomes a kind of a political grassroots political action. It’s like, we know that this is our creation in some way. Yes, the fires are nature, but the climate change, we’ve done a lot of it. We need to recognize that this is really the most important issue there is. That’s my feeling. What is it that we can do about this for the long run, because this isn’t getting any better? There’s a couple of frightening stories. I’ll just add some more fear to the mix here. I’ll thank you very much. There was this report today.
about global warming on the border between Russia and Finland, which is right by the Arctic Circle. Normal temperatures of this time of the year are 54 degrees. Today, they were 84.
Not just a few degrees, 30 degrees warmer than normal at the Arctic Circle. Hmm. Here’s another story. A of scientists went up to the top of the pyramid pyramids in Spain, just out of curiosity, to test the air quality for a month. They were shocked to find the air filled with micro plastics. It’s in our air everywhere we use. We knew that it was in our water. Now we’re finding out it’s in our air. So we’re all breathing plastic all the time, drinking it and breathing it.
The National Parks Conservation Association just issued a report that 85% of the national parks in the lower United States have unhealthy air to breathe. This is where people take vacations. This is where people go to be in nature. They think they’re getting some relief from the city. And so like Joshua Tree, for instance, outside of LA the air is polluted. And so you go there for vacation, and then you find the air here isn’t any better that at home or maybe even worse. And 100% of the national parks are hazy. So whatever you’re looking at, you’re looking at through haze. So I realized that it’s an illusion that pollution only hangs over cities. And It is in these places that we consider a refuge.
Some guys put a submersible or a group of scientists, into the deepest place in the ocean.
Guess what they found? Candy wrappers and plastic bags. Time for us to wake up.
So what do you recommend? MY passion is to recognize that breathing is the most important issue and it’s the most important thing that we have to face, the loss of our quality of our air. And I think when it becomes that personal, you will have to take that on for yourself. So that’s why I’m doing these things around wildfires and trying to help people be prepared. I think people need to recognize this situation. It’s not distant from us. It’s right in under your nose.
The changes in climate are created by humans, humans certainly can do something about it.
Humans certainly can do something to improve the environment where we’re living right now. I’m doing this practice. At some point, I would like to create some kind of action committee to really make this case at a more global level, which I know a lot of people do already, but it is so essential. And the thing I’m doing with the fire department on this presentation I’m making in June is how to make your home defensible. There are lots of things you can do around your home to make sure that you’re not susceptible to catching on fire. It has to do with clearing out the debris around your house and making sure grasses are cut. Trees aren’t too close to the house.
I live on an island 10,000 people, and I think it’s been once or twice this island has been destroyed from fires. The old growth here was burned down the town is burned down once or twice. So we’re real susceptible because we can’t get off the island unless we’re all loading as ferries to run. It’s sort of like living in Los Angeles, Topanga Canyon or a place like that. You know if fire came through that would be very difficult leave. Will you be prepared for a way to get off the island or out of your locale? If things get bad, know where you’re going to go like having some ideas about where to go. It’s always a good idea.
Well, so when it comes to breathing again to I think, you know, for those who are on medications and have nebulizers and oxygen, there also needs to be a lot of preparation and making sure you have enough of a supply. So if you can’t get to the store, you at least have some backup supply so that you can keep yourself healthy.
So to recap, you’re recommending that people have home filters and masks and you are recommending that people always breathe through their nose, whether they’re in a
dangerous situation or not. And that they reduce their activity when breathing is difficult.
Absolutely stay indoors cancel any kind of outdoor activity or anything that’s going to cause your breath to increase.
And the two things that I think are worth mentioning here, especially for parents, there are no approved masks on the market for children.
Find out what you can do to get a mask for yourself that would fit your child way ahead of time by either cutting it down, putting extra straps on it. There are some children’s masks, but they do not have safety ratings for NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) on them. Make sure you have something for your children. And what about pets?
That was a big issue in the California fires. A lot of pets went to rescue centers. We have something on Vashon called NERO. Neighborhood Emergency Rescue Organization I think it’s good to know who in your neighborhood does have breathing difficulties. So when something happens, we can check in on each other and say, do you need anything because I know that you already suffer. Helping people out by sharing resources. I have air conditioning, and you know, they’re in trouble. You could go over there and say, listen, I know you’re not really breathing well, come over to my house where the air conditioning is working. So we can reach out to each other to help support those who are in more need for cleaner air.
Yeah, that’s fantastic, as well as any other situation that comes up.
It’s good to know your neighbors and be in connection with them.
Robert, this has been an incredibly informative conversation. And
just to wrap up, I would like it if you could tell people how they can find you how they can find out more information about the breathable body and about specifically, these workshops that you’re offering. Please tell us
My website is called the breathable body, I have classes and workshops listed under events on that website and I have contact information. I work online quite a bit helping people learn a little bit more about me and more about their breathing and how to work with their breathing, to maximize their health.
I have classes locally and travel around the country and around the world teaching classes. Some of my events are now posted right there right now. Fantastic. It’s thebreathablebody.com. Great. Well, you are such an incredible resource. And I appreciate so much all the different times that we’ve talked together, and I look forward to more.
Yeah, good. me. So I really appreciate that you do this great service, all the things, all the different podcasts you put on. Thank you.