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Be prepared, 5 hacks for staying healthy, and breathing easy this smokey season

by | Dec 12, 2018

Smokey season is here, but are you prepared for the potential impact on your health and well-being? What we discovered the hard way, is that when the smoke pollution in burning season rises, staying healthy is actually possible with a little proactivity. 

When we first moved to Thailand 8 years ago, everything seemed shiny new and organized, and wonderful. (We moved here from a neighboring country.) By comparison, it was full of the creature comforts that we had forgone for nearly a decade of our lives in the laid-back, natural, rustic beauty of some of the neighboring countries.

Yes, everything seemed wonderful and lush and modern, but we quickly discovered that with all that Thailand had to offer in modernity, we were also making something of a compromise with our health, when what started out as what appeared to be the common cold, became a never-ending cough, morphed into pneumonia, and later onto what was eventually to become chronic bronchitis. In our newfound love of Thailand we were faced with a decision; could we actually live here long-term, or will our deteriorating health actually cause us to leave? And all because of a couple particularly bad smokey months a year during the burning season; the effects of which hung on to us throughout the remaining year.

We bought a juicer and a blender and we went all medieval on our ratios of fruits and vegetables vs. anything that wasn’t a fruit or a vegetable. We ate more salmon… and less of anything that wasn’t a fruit or a vegetable.  We swapped out our empty carbs and learned to first spell, and then cook quinoa. We then ate more vegetables. We decided to like kale. We learned how to choose and prepare a less bitter kale. You get my point. Diet is definitely significant as it directly affects one’s immune system, but in this post, we are going to focus primarily on how we can manage our environment to impact our health. 

1) Improve the air quality in your own home.

The average person spends around 8 hours in their beds alone, in addition to the hours spent at home in general. No matter what the air quality indexes say, make sure that during those hours, you are breathing clean air.  

a) Installing air purifiers 

throughout your living space can drastically improve the quality of the air you breathe by filtering out much of the unhealthy particles that accumulate in your indoor air. Purifiers range in make and model from relatively economical, to very expensive, but the great news is that even the more economical models can do the job! Possibly one of the most important considerations when purchasing an air-purifier is the likelihood of the continued availability of the replacement filters, whether the retailer carries the filters in stock, or if they must be ordered, and how long the store has reliably been carrying the filters of any particular brand. (I.e., will they continue to carry the filter sizes for your model, even if the model is discontinued?) If you are unable to replace the filters when they need replacing (about every 2-4 months,  or whenever they go from pearly white to dark grey), your purifier will quickly lead to buyers remorse.

The model that we’ve used now for years- is the Hatari brand. It is economical and available in many stores: Home Pro (which we know stocks filters, even for their long discontinued model), Robinsons, and now very conveniently online through Lazada.

We haven’t personally tested the Hitachi or the newer Xiaomi brand, but we hear similar reports from satisfied users.  Xiaomi may be a relatively newer global brand, in their case, we expect pretty great things to come from this company!

In order to get the most out of your air-purifier, it is worth mentioning:

  • Make sure your purifier is situated off the ground by at least 50 cms, to ideally 1 meter or more. Otherwise, you are just dredging up sediment from your floors and clogging up your filter unnecessarily. 
  • If possible, try to position your purifier near your bed, but facing opposite the air-conditioner, to obtain a good cyclical flow of air through both units.
  • For large, open living areas, two smaller units will often do a better job at cleaning the air than one larger unit that is rated for cleaning double the area (As tested with a Xioami Smart Air Quality monitor.) 

b) Install filter sheets

Install the sheets directly and easily onto the built-in filters of your air-con units, either in addition to stand-alone air-purifiers, (especially for wide open home plans), or as a more economical alternative.  This solution will go a long way towards improving the air quality in your home environment, at a fraction of the price.
So far the main brand available is 3M’s Filtrete, sold in individual sheets or as a roll, and available at Home Pro, and Big-C.  

2) Check your local air quality index regularly. 

During the worst of the burning season, it’s good to keep an eye on the air quality index for your area, via the Airvisual app on your device.  Even throughout the day when outdoor activities are scheduled, the air quality can fluctuate significantly over the period of several hours, with more concentrated values often observed first thing in the morning.

During “unhealthy” periods of outdoor exposure, we recommend:

  • The use of a certified mask (see below).
  • To limit outdoor activities, especially cardiovascular exercise.
  • To take more breaks during active outdoor activities to regulate your breathing.
  • Speak up! Ask your kids schools and your workplaces to install air-purifiers, or at a minimum, filter sheets in their air-conditioning units.

3) Wear a mask with a pm 2.5 rating. 

While you may not be able to greatly influence the agricultural burning practices of all the nations and groups contributing to this issue in time to freely embrace the great outdoors this burn season, you can protect your lungs when you do venture outside. As the smoke level amps up, guaranteed you are going to see the number of people wearing face masks go up too. But unlike air-purifiers, only specific masks that are rated to filter out the very smallest particle sizes will actually protect your lungs and your overall health from the smallest particle sizes-the ones that do the most long-term damage.

The most recognized brand of certified masks is undoubtedly the 3M N95 mask. Available conveniently at many 7-11s, pharmacies, and Lazada, and designed to fold flat for easy transport. The “N” refers to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).  NIOSH respirator certification is necessary in order to label any respirator with one of the three “N” certification categories: N95, N99 or N100.

In essence, the N rating indicates that the mask is 95%, 99% and 100% efficient respectively at filtering out  2.5-micron particles. 

In order to receive this rating, the mask must conform well to the features of the face and fit snugly in size. It should be noted that facial hair will vastly reduce the efficiency of any mask.

A somewhat more expensive, but considerably more attractive alternative is the masks by Style Seal.

The best thing about this mask is that not only are they attractive enough -they come in a range of patterns and colors- for your kids to happily rock them to school, but the filters are easy to swap on out for a new one, or for a different N rating level -thanks to their a velcro ring design- to accommodate fluctuations in the actual air quality. And yes, this is a good thing. Often people initially make the mistake of thinking “well wouldn’t I just want the highest filter rating possible?”  The answer is not necessarily. Keep in mind that in order for these masks to be truly effective, they must snugly seal to the contours of your face, and in our experience, the denser the filter, the (somewhat) harder it is to breathe through. If it’s not comfortable, you won’t wear it, and then you will be back to 100% exposure, opposed to the much more acceptable 95% protection.

4) Introduce plants to your home environment. 

We all know that plants provide the planet with the oxygen needed to support life and that they clean our air, but did it ever occur to you that the same could be true for the air inside your home? While the jury is still out on the science of exactly how many plants it might take to effectively contribute to the air quality inside your home, the fact is, there are other evidence-based health benefits associated with having plants in your home that can affect even your mood and energy levels and reduce stress.

5) Know when to get medical help.

When all else fails, if you are experiencing a cold or flu symptoms that just won’t go away,  know when enough is enough and seek the help of a physician, (see the link to local doctors-that have been recommended by the community) before the problem becomes chronic or causes long-term damage. Many newcomers to the region, who have never struggled with allergies in the past, are often not even aware that it may well be allergies that are the cause of their health issues.  Between the smoke pollution and the fact that the climate in Thailand means that there is always something new blooming throughout the year,  If you are hanging onto a cough, runny nose, or sore throat for more than 5-10 days, realise that the common cold/flu only lasts up to 5-10 days. It may just be that you are in need of allergy medication, even for a season, until you can get on top of it.

Do you have a recommendation for a purifier or a face mask that you’ve found works well? Let us know in the comments section below!

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