From Forest Fires to “Smoke Brain”: The Hidden Hazards of Smoke Inhalation
As we close out the summer of 2023, one of the season's HOTTEST (sorry) topics was wildfires. As such, MIRA Safety has closely monitored every wildfire survival aspect you need to know about. From the ravages of the Maui wildfires to Yosemite's heat waves, we remain one of the most consistent and reliable sources of survivalist current events.
Now, it’s no secret that 2023 has been a genuinely concerning year for firefighters and public officials. After all, the globe has been contending with climate change, which the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions states is the main contributing factor for the doubling of large wildfires between 1984 and 2015.
With that said, human error is another piece of the puzzle, as statistics show that more than 80% of all wildfire events are sparked by people. Put simply: climate change sets it up and humans spike it. In this way, wildfires are a two-pronged issue that requires effort by governments–as well as each and every individual.
Until then, however, wildfires are here to stay.
A major aspect of that, unfortunately, is the long-term impacts of exposure to wildfires on your brain, which emerging science is shedding light on.
But what are these consequences? And how can you protect yourself from them?
We take you through it below.
Table of Contents
The Hidden Dangers of Smoke
Worsening Air Quality
Wildfires on the Rise
Wildfires and the Brain
Smoke-induced Brain Fog
Your Smoke Brain Prevention Kit
The Hidden Dangers of Smoke
Now, you’re already a well-informed citizen–you read the Mira Safety blog, after all. That means you’re probably all caught up on the gear that you need to survive and thrive, and you can tell the average Joe the difference between the CBRN Gas Mask Filter NBC-77 SOF 40mm and the MIRA Safety VK-530 Smoke / Carbon Monoxide Filter. Heck, with how often MIRA Safety touches on wildfires, you might think you hold all the knowledge on the topic.
However, if you’re thinking it’s awfully early to start talking about solutions when we haven’t even told you the problem–well, you’d be about half right. So let’s backtrack to the VK-530 Smoke/Carbon Monoxide Filter and why you’re going to need it sooner rather than later.
The VK-530 Smoke/Carbon Monoxide Filter
As everyone knows, breathing in smoke is bad for you–be it tobacco smoke, structure fire smoke, incense smoke from the weird sword/trinket/vegan jewelry (?) store at the mall, or even that brisket you forgot you started six hours ago. (If you’re quick, you can pretend you were just giving the bark extra time.)
Forgetfulness happens to the best of us–but it can also reflect a deeper problem. So while you fumble with the vents and consider buying a Traeger, think about the last time you had a trip to your PCP. It’s a long wildfire season, after all, and that smoke has been a constant annoyance.
Granted, it’s more likely than not that ruining your Labor Day BBQ isn’t going to cause brain damage (even if you might feel a little brain-damaged for not setting a timer).
What about wildfire smoke though? That’s a bit different. Besides the plethora of respiratory issues smoke inhalation causes, an AQI (Air Quality Index) above 200 carries dire consequences. For perspective, prolonged exposure to an AQI of above 200 is equivalent to smoking seven cigarettes in a day.
Considering how many wildfires we’ve had and their increasing frequency, that’s a lot of raw-dogging Reds. For perspective, even if you were chiefing half a pack of cowboy killers a day, a few weeks of constant exposure would make that habit look casual.
So what is the AQI we’ve heard about all summer? Who’s deciding it? And how does the government use it to decide it’s time to stick its hand into our business?
And what about “smoke brain” and the symptoms it can cause? Is wildfire smoke really that bad? And why would anyone buy a pellet grill when charcoal is clearly superior?
With these questions in mind, let’s make entry into this foggy topic and save ourselves from the perils of smoke inhalation and brisket that tastes like hot dogs.
Worsening Air Quality
A wildfire-induced haze outside Summit One Vanderbilt in New York on Jun 7, 2023. (Image courtesy of David Dee Delgado/Getty Image via CNN)
The Air Quality Index is a measurement system used to grade the quality of air. It’s pretty simple stuff: a scale of 0-500 is used to indicate current air quality in a particular region. The EPA uses five pollutant/particulate metrics to calculate their AQI score: carbon monoxide, ground-level ozone, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and particle pollution. These are used to determine a category of air safety.
Each one of the metrics is punched into a fancy proprietary formula, some math happens, some incense is burned (probably), and out pops a plastic egg with a number in it (we imagine).
Ranging from “good” to “hazardous,” the system is very intuitive and simple to understand. (Maybe more government agencies could take the time to learn a lesson from this.) For context, an index score of lower than fifty is generally regarded as a “good” air quality rating.
Once the air quality shifts into the 200+ range, that’s when it’s time to start paying attention to your local news. Bear in mind that Canada’s wildfires and their resulting smoke qualified for this index, and continue to as well. Indeed, even for healthy individuals, the high particulate matter carried the risk of increase difficulty breathing.
Washington DC officials, for example, urged the cancellation of multiple events this past June due to the area’s index rising to the “maroon” category in the AQI. Note that the maroon category is reserved for an AQI of 300 or higher: the highest and most hazardous condition on the scale.
This condition resulted in many large sports events being called, too, and a mandate from elected officials urging citizens to wear an N95 mask when outdoors (or avoid the outdoors entirely).
Ultimately, the AQI is calculated and reported to multiple news outlets in almost every town and city. It’s a highly accepted system to keep vulnerable populations informed. During times of extreme weather and hazardous conditions, the AQI can be used to determine your own level of preparedness.
Wildfires on the Rise
Wreckage caused by Maui wildfires. (Image courtesy of Britannica)
As previously mentioned, 2023 has seen a startling increase in wildfire activity. Most recently, the devastation in Maui captivated the world. So where’s all this fire coming from?
As this impending inferno looms over us like the clouds of smoke wafting down from our neighbors to the north, the science points towards a warming world.
This means that, as climate change accelerates, we are seeing more opportunities for smoke to envelop our lives. And as temperatures rise, so does the likelihood the oceans will be affected. As of 2016, for example, ocean warming was identified as affecting 44% of the world’s oceans.
But how does this relate to wildfires?
Well, as the oceans warm, storms gain intensity. Indeed, a dispiriting 80% of all hurricanes are now being reported as “energized” by warmer waters. This means faster winds, quicker movement, and more frequency of extreme storms.
And not only do these changes in temperature bring us more intense storms, but they also impact weather patterns like the Gulf Stream and Hawaiian trade winds. When these patterns are disrupted, we see intensified weather occurrences in broader regions. In Maui, for example, we saw the Foehn wind effect drive flash droughts—turning an entire tropical island into kindling in mere months.
Meanwhile, in Greece, fires were spurred on by vicious heat waves. This is because heat waves are an obvious contributor to wildfires–heat, after all, begets fires. And with more and more of them nearly every week, the threat of wildfires has become omnipresent.
Lightning from intensified storms and warmer conditions, too, sets these regions up for inevitable failure. Coupled with the seemingly unavoidable element of human factors, it’s a wonder how we managed to make it to work every day without becoming engulfed in flames.
All in all, across the world, conditions for fire have been primed to explode. Combine drought with heat waves, intensified storms with failing natural weather patterns, and human error with lightning–and here we are.
Accordingly, it has become an unavoidable reality that our wildfires have become—and will remain—a relevant fixture in our lives. Hopefully, however, further education and fire awareness programs will yield a positive impact on communities and society at large.
Remember, after all: although there are factors outside of our direct control, through concerted awareness and remaining vigilant, we can stay safe. The words of the immortal “Smokey the Bear” seem to echo back to us: “Only you can prevent forest fires.”
Granted, it does seem a little less impactful now that we know all the unavoidable factors that give rise to wildfires. Within this context, “you can choose to not make this worse” might be more accurate.
Wildfires and the Brain
The role of the hippocampus in the brain. (Image courtesy of News-medical.net)
New wildfires seem to be popping up every day, with swathes of house fires being reported.
Oftentimes, with increasing wildfires, house fires are one of the most reported metrics. These kinds of fires, notably, are fueled by a myriad of hazardous chemicals. Indeed, the smoke produced can be laden with dangers from cleaning supplies, industrial or mechanical solvents, and treated wood.
More wildfires, of course, mean increased odds of a structure fire. And more structures being burnt means more smoke. More smoke, in turn, means more inhalation. This brings the threat of smoke inhalation directly to our doorstep (or if you’re unlucky, that’s also on fire).
Worst of all, with increased smoke risk comes an increased risk of severe brain damage. Forgive the brief anatomy and physiology lesson, but smoke specifically causes inflammation in the hippocampus. When the brain suffers from inflammation, this is called encephalitis.
Inflammation is, in short, a response from the body due to infection, injury, or other irritating factors. When it occurs, white blood cells swarm to the affected area in an attempt to remedy/fight off an outside threat, potentially causing pain. (If you’ve ever suffered from inflammation in a joint, you’re all too aware of the misery that it brings.)
Inflammation causes many other unpleasant conditions, too, like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (also caused by smoke inhalation). Overall, inflammation causes an affected area to swell and redden. As such, when your brain is afflicted by encephalitis, it can be devastating to every one of your body’s systems.
Unsurprisingly, smoke inhalation causing inflammation in your hippocampus is bad–to put it bluntly. Your hippocampus, after all, is directly responsible for some very important functions–namely, memory, attention, and learning. These are all vital functions not only for survival, but for a good quality of life too.
Alarmingly, wildfire smoke can induce this type of inflammation in the brain for over a month. We know this because of a study using rats, which observed that wood smoke disrupted communications between their neurotransmitters and brain receptors in the same way humans would experience it.
Note, however, that while we might find ourselves hunting cheese occasionally at 3 AM like a rat (don’t lie, that bag of shredded taco cheese in your fridge is looking light lately), the functions being impaired in humans have more substantial consequences.
Indeed, brain fog, or “smoke brain,” has been reported in many individuals exposed to intermittent and consistent smoke conditions. The symptoms of this are difficulty concentrating, mood destabilization, and a general feeling of malaise or fatigue.
Emerging science is beginning to show the impacts of this. A 2022 study in Spain, for example, found that school children exposed to high levels of pollutants in smog/smoke scored significantly lower on standardized testing. Another study conducted from 2009-2016 across nearly 12,000 school districts, meanwhile, corroborates these findings.
Studies also identify other neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's and Dementia as possibly being accelerated by wildfire smoke inhalation.
Utilizing Air Quality Index data, researchers determined that over 188,000 new cases of Dementia were attributable to wildfire smoke. Specifically, they were attributable to one of the metrics called “PM2.5.”
PM2.5 exposure is a measurement of particles in the air, particularly particles from wildfires and agricultural smoke. Toxic components, possibly from pesticides and other chemicals that bind with smaller particles.
It makes sense; if pesticides are essentially neurotoxins for insects and other animals, we certainly don’t want them picked up in wildfire smoke and transported for hundreds, if not thousands, of miles.
When we consider the heightened frequency of wildfires—and their rapid spread—this paints a terrifying picture of what we’re being exposed to.
After all, some speculate that the smoke from wildfires can be as damaging as car exhaust–possibly even more so.
A Note of Interest
And speaking of car exhaust, when was the last time you checked your CO alarms?
We mention this because wood smoke contains high emissions of CO, or carbon monoxide–a well-studied and well-established hazard to the human brain. With this in mind, we wonder: have you ever felt yourself beginning to doze off during a long conference meeting? Maybe you’ve begun to feel drowsy and unfocused in a poorly ventilated-meeting room.
Note that carbon monoxide, in concentrated amounts, can produce feelings of anxiety, sleepiness, and impaired cognitive function.
Impaired cognitive function isn’t something anyone wants ever, at any time. We especially don’t want to be experiencing it with a dangerous wildfire looming outside.
Smoke-induced Brain Fog
Is your brain fog caused by smoke? (Image courtesy of Harvard Medical)
It’s hot. It’s way too hot. The air outside is thick and foggy. You already knew that though, because today is the day you’re leaving. You’re leaving because your wife is tugging on your shirt. No, you’re leaving because of the wildfire–she has her mask affixed and tells you to get yours on–the one that started the next town over a week or so ago. Or was it those Canadian wildfires for the last month?
You’ve been too busy working outside to wear a mask because the smoke has been coming and going, so it wasn’t a big deal. The missus, meanwhile, has been religiously wearing her PPE when she’s been outside – you told her you were doing the same.
The news has been showing it approaching for days now. That was on Thursday, you think. But now it’s Saturday and the police are going door to door ushering you to safety. You forgot to keep the radio on the local news station because you were too busy packing up. Though you swear you had your MIRA Safety kit stashed away in your office, you can’t find it now.
The officers left twenty minutes ago. You frantically search your bedroom for your kit. Where are your keys? You turn your attention to your back patio. Ash and smog fall over your neighbor's shed in sheets: a structure fire materializing before your glassy eyes.
You focus on your patio–on your charcoal grill, and think “charcoal is absolutely better than pellets because real wood tastes better.” It’s a terribly strange thought, like you’re answering a question nobody asked. You can’t concentrate.
You snap back to the present as you fumble your phone in your hand: five missed calls from your wife. You run through your garage out into your driveway. After that, you scramble to punch in your security code; gotta lock your doors right? You can’t think.
You can’t think. What are you doing? You see the truck and begin to sprint towards it. You’ve sputtered about and wasted precious time. Would you have been sharper if you’d been prepared? You hope your family is packed and ready to go, because today, you dropped the ball.
Don’t find yourself in these shoes. MIRA Safety has the gear you need to be ready early. By staying prepared, you can ensure your family is protected before smoke brain sets in.
Your Smoke Brain Prevention Kit
First and foremost, we need to talk about the MIRA Safety VK-530 Smoke / Carbon Monoxide Filter Cartridges, which turns your gas mask into a safe, reliable smoke hood. Effective against smoke particulates (even against dementia-causing PM2.5) and carbon monoxide hazards, you’ll be protected with the most effective gas mask filter available to the general public.
Indeed, your brain will thank you even as you traverse and thrive in thick smoke environments as low as >20% oxygen. This filter, after all, is engineered specifically to counter the looming wildfire threat facing the globe. In this way, it ensures you’re protected from the brain-damaging effects of smoke, as well as the respiratory complications that may arise while escaping a structure fire.
No longer will you need to take up space in your kit with a separate, specialty smoke hood, because this one filter gives you the flexibility and range of safety diversity you need to stay fog-free. Make no mistake: if you ever find yourself escaping from one of the 71,000 house fires that fall to wildfires each year, you’ll be glad to have this on hand.
The MIRA Safety VK-530 Smoke/Carbon Monoxide Filter Cartridge
Often planned last–but always first in our hearts–are our pets. In this regard, the MIRA Safety FirstBreed Collapsible CBRN Animal Ark/ Dog Gas Mask is an essential part of your house fire safety kit. Effective against a myriad of CBRN threats, it’s also suitable for smoke inhalation. Our pets can’t advocate for themselves, but if they could, they’d ask for it by name.
Reusable, with a fifteen-year shelf life, this positive-pressure dome encloses your pets in a protective bubble while ensuring an oxygen-safe environment. Plus, the Animal Ark provides additional room for toys, food, and other animal essentials while bugging out. This is important because your pet’s favorite toys can help to keep them calm and remind them that you’re going to make sure they make it out alive. They’d do the same for you, after all.
Granted, animals are blessed with innate survival instincts, but it never hurts to add the human touch. That’s why it’s best to give them the best protection available–more specifically, twelve hours of continued protection for your furry friends (using one set of AA batteries).
The MIRA Safety FirstBreed Collapsible CBRN Animal Ark/Dog Gas Mask
Last but certainly not least is your most important MIRA safety product: your mask. In this regard, the MIRA Safety CM-7M Military Gas Mask is your first line of defense against particulate (and many other) threats. Designed with optics and usability in mind, the CM-7M Military Gas Mask ensures the highest usability regardless of which phase of wildfire response you find yourself in.
The CM-7M Military Gas Mask
Compatible with CamelBak water bladders, you can remain hydrated and operational in even the most challenging and stressful environments. Plus, it’s quick-donning and guaranteed to remain effective in your inventory for twenty plus years, meaning this mask stays stalwart and ready at all times.
(Image courtesy of Inside Climate News)
It feels as though there are constantly new anxieties, aspects, and angles to these seemingly indomitable wildfires.
But though the world may be on fire–literally and figuratively–we press on.
That's because no threat is too great or powerful with the right amount of preparation and training. As such, MIRA Safety can see you through the storm with our wide inventory of wildfire preparedness products–though we sincerely hope you never have occasion to use them.