By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Wildfires devastating the West Coast have made the air quality the worst found on Earth, CNN reported. The Air Quality Index determined the air to be at harmful levels due to the amount of smoke in it. Poor-quality air directly affects the respiratory system.
According to CNN, smoke is wreaking havoc on the Pacific coastline, which could be dangerous. “Three major US cities being wreathed in smoke from massive wildfires now have the worst air quality of any big cities in the world, according to a monitoring group,” the article said. “The air is so full of smoke in Seattle and San Francisco, it’s at ‘unhealthy’ levels, according to the Air Quality Index.
“But in Portland, Oregon, things are significantly worse. The air there is ‘very unhealthy,’ meaning that anyone breathing it in ‘may experience more serious health effects.'”
As the article said, the respiratory system may be directly affected by the troublesome air on the West Coast. But why?
The Process of Breathing
“External pulmonary respiration involves the exchange of gases across the capillaries,” said Dr. Anthony A. Goodman, Adjunct Professor of Medicine at Montana State University and Affiliate Professor in the Department of Biological Structure at the University of Washington School of Medicine. “Air moves down through the bronchials into the alveoli, where oxygen-bearing gas would cross over into the pulmonary veins, which are going to go back carrying red blood toward the heart. There will be an exchange from the pulmonary arteries—which are carrying the deoxygenated blood—and they’re going to get rid of their gas, the CO2, into the alveoli, for blowing back into the atmosphere.”
Dr. Goodman said that when the lungs are at rest, and as long as the mouth or nose are open, the lungs will have a near equal level of atmospheric pressure to the outside world. When we inhale, the diaphragm contracts and lowers. Air is passively sent into the lungs to fill the chest cavity—and harmful smoke comes with it if you’re on the West Coast. When we exhale, the diaphragm rises again and air is passively sent out of the lungs to normalize pressure again.
Brain and Lung
“The brain is at the center of [controlling respiration], and it’s an interesting area to study because this is one of the involuntary areas where the conscious meets the unconscious,” Dr. Goodman said. “We can sit here, totally oblivious to our breath, and it will go on. We can fall asleep and our breath will continue. However, I can sit here and hold my breath; I can breathe faster, slower, deeper, more shallow, and I can do almost anything I want and overcome—within limits—the natural rhythm of my breathing.”
Dr. Goodman said that it’s very difficult to hold one’s breath to the point of unconsciousness. But if we did, we would immediately begin breathing again. Furthermore, the body has set up a system in which the desire to release a held breath isn’t due to lack of oxygen but to the buildup of carbon dioxide.
This makes it impossible to simply hold our breath while outside in hazardous conditions, like the smoky West Coast. With such a complicated process involved in respiration, and so many potential problems due to smoke inhalation, it’s no wonder Americans along the Pacific are hoping for a quick containment for the fires.
Dr. Anthony Goodman contributed to this article. Dr. Goodman is Adjunct Professor of Medicine at Montana State University and Affiliate Professor in the Department of Biological Structure at the University of Washington School of Medicine. He earned his BA from Harvard College and his MD from Cornell Medical College.