Bushfires can damage our brain

Regardless of where we live, bushfires are becoming an increasingly common feature of our lives and a growing risk factor for cognitive decline. 

Scientists have long known that air pollution contributes to stroke, high blood pressure, heart, lung and kidney disease, Parkinson’s, type 2 diabetes, depression, anxiety, cancer and reproductive problems (sperm damage). Air pollution is also one of the top 12 risk factors so far identified for Alzheimer’s. In addition, people with Alzheimer’s who live in areas with high levels of air pollution decline more rapidly, require more frequent hospital admissions and die sooner. Even healthy adults and children score worse on tests of cognition and memory when exposed to high levels of air pollution in the hours, days or weeks prior to testing. 

How does air pollution cause brain damage? Inhaled pollutants enter our bloodstream from our lungs and are then distributed throughout our body to all our organs including our brain. Hence air pollution can give rise to many different diseases, depending on our individual susceptibilities and where the greatest number of particles become lodged. Air pollutants can also enter our brain directly through the cells and nerves in our nose, eyes and mouth. Our nose is a primary target for air pollution, which may be a reason that loss of smell is an early feature of both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. A third route by which air pollution travels to the brain is via our gut. Air pollution changes the composition of our gut bacteria, induces chronic inflammation and damages our gut lining so that it becomes more permeable (leaky). This provides another escape route for pollutants to enter our blood or get carried to the brain along a nerve called the vagus.

What can we do to reduce the harms of smoke from bushfires?

The first thing is to recognise that smoke particles can stay in the air for a long time (several weeks to months), travel hundreds of kilometres, and easily enter buildings. Once inside our home, smoke particles (especially what are known as ‘volatile organic compounds’ or VOCs) stick to indoor surfaces: floors, walls, tables and ceilings. At a later time, they can transform back into gases and we unknowingly inhale them. VOCs can also occur with cooking and use of cleaning agents so the last thing we want is added exposure from lingering bushfire smoke. 

Fortunately, scientists from Colorado State University have discovered an easy and effective fix: vacuuming, dusting, mopping and scrubbing — using a non-bleach solution. Cleaning exposed surfaces has been found to permanently lower VOC levels and improve indoor air quality. So for your next health hack, roll up your sleeves and start spring cleaning! 

Air filters can also be useful but they only extract particles from the air and cannot remove VOCs once they attach to surfaces. 

Please forward this email to all your contacts because air pollution is an issue that affects everyone.

Showing 3 comments
  • Franci Williams

    I will forward this. Thank you

    I have your excellent book.

  • Denise

    Does this mean that heating your living room with an open fire would have the same impact?

    • Helena Popovic

      Hi Denise, thank you for your thoughtful question.

      Yes, smoke from wood-burning heaters affects air quality inside your home and surrounding environment. Long term exposure can cause heart and lung disease while brief exposures can exacerbate asthma or worsen pre-existing heart conditions. In addition, a home that utilises a wood-fire heater can get a build up of carbon monoxide (CO). Carbon monoxide is a colourless, odourless, tasteless gas that we are not able to detect through our senses. A poorly installed, improperly vented or leaking wood heater can result in CO poisoning if levels inside the home become high enough. Even a small to moderate rise in CO levels can lead to headaches, fatigue, chest pain, flu-like symptoms or difficulty concentrating. High exposure to CO can permanently damage our heart and brain and even lead to death.

      Other airborne pollutants from wood smoke include benzene, butadiene, formaldehyde and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These pollutants can cause a range of symptoms from eye irritation and headaches to more serious damage of lungs, nerves, brain, reproductive system and immune system. Some of these pollutants may also contribute to cancer.

      The state government of Victoria recommends the following health precautions for wood heaters:

      If you have a wood heater:

      – Make sure you operate it properly to minimise smoke generation. Maintain the heater and arrange for regular cleaning of the chimney.
      – Ensure fresh air enters the room to prevent carbon monoxide build-up. This includes keeping the inside doors to the rest of the house open. If there are no vents in the wall in the room where the heater is, open a window slightly – at least a few centimetres.
      – Be alert to symptoms such as drowsiness, as this can indicate high CO levels.
      – Never burn plastics or foam, painted wood or copper chrome arsenate (CCA) treated or creosote-treated timber (for example, railway sleepers). Toxic fumes are generated in addition to wood smoke air pollutants.
      – Consider installing a less polluting form of heating, such as flued gas or electric, or replace your wood heater with a model that complies with Australian Standards.

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