The Health Impacts from Breathing Particulate Matter 

We are constantly inhaling particulate matter—not just from pollution, but from smoke, candles, and even cleaning chemicals. How does it impact our health?

Whether you’re aware of it or not, you’re constantly breathing in particulate matter. It comes from pollution like car exhaust, wildfires (near and far), tree pollen, the scented candle you lit last night, and even the chemicals used to clean your home. And regardless of whether you can see or smell it, it has an impact on your health.  

Particulate matter is a fancy term for tiny particles (generally 10 microns in diameter or smaller) that are small enough to stay airborne for extended periods of time. The larger 10-micron particulate matter can get stuck in our lungs, contributing to respiratory conditions like asthma, but the smaller particles—under 2.5 microns—can actually get into our circulation and cause inflammation.  

Particulate matter has been associated with a host of inflammatory conditions including atherosclerosis, Alzheimer’s, and even anxiety and depression. In fact, particulate matter has been associated with so many chronic diseases that the question should be asked; how much is correlation versus causation?  

RELATED: Fast Talk Episode 171—Environmental Pollution, Health, and Performance 

That is one of the many questions our team will address in this episode. Hosting the show are coach Rob Pickels, ND, Dr. Griffin McMath, and coach Trevor Connor. They will explain what particulate matter is, how it gets into our systems, how it creates inflammation, and what that means for our health. Perhaps most importantly, they’ll address what you can do to reduce your exposure both in training and everyday life.  

So, pull out that mask you didn’t think you’d ever need again, and let’s make you fast! 


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Episode Transcript

Trevor Connor  00:04

Hello, and welcome to Fast Talk your source for the science of endurance sports training. I’m your host Trevor Connor here with Coach Rob Pickels and Dr. Griffin McMath.

Trevor Connor  00:13

Whether you’re aware of it or not, you’re constantly breathing in particulate matter comes from pollution like car exhausts, fires burning 1000s of miles away, pollen from trees, the scented candle you lit last night, and even the chemicals we use to clean our homes. Regardless of whether you see it or smell it, it has an impact on your health. Particulate matter itself is just a fancy term for small particles, generally 10 microns in diameter or smaller, that makes them small enough to stay airborne for extended periods of time. The larger 10 micron particulate matter can get stuck in your lungs contributing to conditions like asthma, but it’s the smaller particles, the ones under 2.5 microns that can actually get into our circulation and cause inflammation. Particulate Matter has been associated with a host of inflammatory conditions, including respiratory conditions such as asthma, cardiovascular disease, such as atherosclerosis, neurodegenerative conditions, such as Alzheimer’s, and even anxiety and depression.

Trevor Connor  01:08

In fact, particulate matter has been associated with so many chronic diseases that the question should be asked how much is just correlation versus something that the particulate matter actually contributes to? That is one of the important questions that we’re going to answer today, we’ll explain what particulate matter is, how it gets into your system, how it creates inflammation in our bodies, and what that means for our health. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we’ll address what you can do to reduce your exposure both on your training and in everyday life. So pull out that mask you didn’t think you’d ever need again, and let’s make it fast. Well, welcome, everybody. We have a bit of a different show. Today, we have chosen not to do a guest on this episode, and Rob, I’m gonna say none of us are experts here, particulate matter, o this is going to be interesting. We’ve all done our research. We’ve all done a reading leading into this.

Rob Pickels  02:01

I know that I’m certainly not particularly an expert. But see what I did there. I’m great at puns, maybe. But like you said, a lot of research. This is an interesting topic. To me. It’s something that had come up earlier in my life when I was still an undergraduate because I was considering a graduate program. I’m actually with one of the researchers we’re going to talk about today Dr. Ken Rundle, and ever since then the research that he did sort of fascinated me ultimately, it didn’t work out to be the right thing, I ended up going to the Olympic Training Center and doing some work with them instead. But particulate matter in the effects on the body or something near and dear to my heart. And I’m glad that we’re able to talk about it on the show today, because I think it’s really important information that all athletes get to know about and to learn about, so that they can understand how this could be affecting their performance, how it could be affecting their health, and then end up with some strategies that help them reduce the effects.

Griffin McMath  02:55

I agree. I also think as far as individual health everyone has their own deck of cards they’re playing with some of the things that we’ll talk about today will hit home for some more than others who have certain conditions that run in their family, their chronic health issues that they need to be mindful of that this really relates to, I know our family has what appears to now be a genetic cause for pulmonary fibrosis. And the type that it is is pretty rare and not treatable. So this particularly hits home for me too. And something

Trevor Connor  03:23

I’ll quickly mention feels like we recorded this two months ago, but I looked it up, we did an episode on environmental pollution, health and performance with the Dr. Michael Cole. And that was episode 171. So it’s actually going back now. No,

Rob Pickels  03:39

yeah, if I had known about that, I would have listened to it to prep for today. He

Griffin McMath  03:43

actually wrote another article for us recently, over the last six months is training in air pollution worth it and goes into it. So if you’re listening to this podcast, we’re giving you ample resources to join us in this knowledge base.

Trevor Connor  03:56

So the one thing I will say that episode was overall about pollution. So we actually talked a lot about ozone. We talked about a lot of other things, elements, whatever you want to call it that you would find in pollution. This episode is specifically about one aspect, which is particles in the pollution are in the air.

Rob Pickels  04:15

Yeah, Trevor, and I’m glad that you point that out. Because I think that a lot of athletes, people in general will think to themselves, well, I don’t live in a polluted area. There is not an active forest fire burning near my house right now. So I don’t necessarily really need to think about that. And that’s not the case, as we’ll discuss today. You know, there’s research showing that athletes significantly reduced their performance after 21 days of exposure, even to just a very low level in a Qi. And we’ll talk about air quality index that otherwise is good that otherwise is a green light, even low levels like that can have deleterious effects on your performance. And I think that people are exposed to different sources of particulate matter in ways that they don’t necessarily realize the dust on your gravel ride. The candle that you’re burning I know I love candles. I love scents and holiday time is, you know a big time for candles for me and that introduces particulate matter into the air inside your indoor living space. So it is a much bigger conversation than just pollution or big cities or vehicle traffic or any topics like that. Another

Trevor Connor  05:19

really important one that we’re all dealing with is pollen that fits under this category of particulate matter. Hey, cycling coaches, this is Trevor Connor, I’d like to invite you to ignite your spark at the 2024 endurance exchange. This year’s event is powered by USA Cycling and USA Triathlon. It offers new info and great networking opportunities mix it up with hundreds coaches from around the globe and soak up forward looking talks from renowned experts like keynote speaker Dr. And Hugo Samba lon, I’ll also be there sharing my insights and how to choose reliable and trustworthy info and a world of information overload experienced the hundreds exchanges January in North Carolina for more information go to endurance

Rob Pickels  06:06

So to put this into perspective, right, and to really open up this conversation, I think that people are aware of say particulate matter like asbestos, right, we’ve we’ve all been trained, we’ve all been educated to know that asbestos was an insulation, it was a fire retardant. It was used in panels and different types of building structures, and that the removal of that and those asbestos particles being in the air can ultimately cause some really damaging effects to people’s lungs, right, and you have to get dressed up in a suit and you have to get dressed up in a respirator because we know how those particles entering into your lungs can cause damage. Well, ultimately what we’re talking about for the rest of this, maybe it’s not on the same level of something like asbestos, but it’s really we’re talking about similar particles and similar mechanisms. But I think that a lot of people don’t necessarily give them the the credence or the credit that they deserve in terms of causing damage to the airways there. And one place that I’d love to start is is sort of the different sources, but also the different sizes of particulate matter, because the size of the particulate matter, interestingly enough really determines how it enters into your airway into your lungs, and then potentially directly impacting your body by entering into your bloodstream.

Trevor Connor  07:20

I personally found this really interesting, because so much of the research really just focuses on the size. And Rob, I know you’re gonna give us a definition of the different sizes. But I struggled with that. And I was finally happy to find a review that addressed the fact that research just says, you know, what’s the impact of 2.5 versus 10, just looking at the differences in the size, but the composition of those particles can be vastly different. And you see a lot less research looking at well, what is you know, we might have a bunch of two point fives, but one could have organic matter one could not. And how does that impact your body, I think that’s had a big effect on the research not looking at the particular composition, which is very hard to do.

Rob Pickels  08:04

Yeah, it’s certainly an interesting point. And and at this point, ultimately, our research is dividing this into particle size. If you go online, and we’ll talk about air quality index a Qi, then it gives numbers for different particle sizes. And the reason that those particle sizes are so important is because they’re affecting ultimately the aerodynamics of these particles as you’re breathing them into your body. And if you take a larger particle size, and they break these down into pm, so there’s typically what we’re going to talk about is PM 10pm 2.5, and then pm one, with 10 being the largest particle size. And that means that those are particles that are smaller than 10 micrometers in size. And so that would be 0.01 millimeters, right? So a 100th of a millimeter. And these ultimately, are oftentimes things like dust, although every composition that we have, has different sizes, right? If you talk about car exhaust, and it’s going to be primarily in the PM 2.5 range, but it does have particles that are both larger and smaller than that. Well, oftentimes, what’s going to happen is as you’re breathing in those larger particles, those PM 10s, they’re entering into your mouth. And as soon as they begin hitting any bends in your airways, they kind of slam into the back wall right there, they’re not necessarily able to travel around a bend in your airway. And so oftentimes, we’re gonna see things like pm 10 V deposited kind of in the the largest tubes right at the back of your throat, as you move down into your chest, but they’re not necessarily able to penetrate as deeply into your lungs as if we take a PM 2.5 Right, which is a much smaller, now we’re talking less than 2.5 micrometers, which would be 0.00 to five millimeters. We’re getting pretty small here. That’s a Will to now travel into the smaller parts of your airway. And then when we get down all the way to the pm one, interestingly enough, these particles are so small, there’s so many zeros in front of that one, when we talk about millimeters, that they’re able to go all the way deeply down inside of your lungs and actually cross the barrier from your alveoli directly into your bloodstream, and able to detect those circulating around inside of your blood. So these are having direct systemic effects. And because of these different sizes, and different depositing, I think that that’s where we’re going to be seeing sort of different disease states that are occurring from a PM 10, which might cause a lot more fibrosis in your lung than a pm one, which might not affect your lung quite as much. But because it’s floating in your bloodstream, it has different effects.

Griffin McMath  10:45

So Rob, how do we measure air quality? What does that look like? What does that mean? What are these values?

Rob Pickels  10:51

Yeah, that’s that’s where the AQa index that I mentioned before Griffin comes in. AQ is something that is measured with a government, it’s measured with a lot of different sensors, you can buy sensors for your home that you can put for your own indoor air quality. But there are multiple places to check for this. There’s like air, or air, you can look at purple There’s sort of different ones with different user interfaces, and they’ll give you insight into this AQa number. Now, AQa stands for air quality index, and it’s a unitless number. And so ultimately, it ranges from zero to about 300 or 300 Plus, and it doesn’t have a unit associated with it. But oftentimes, when we’re talking about a particulate matter, what they’re doing is they’re taking in the micrograms per meter cubed of particulate matter, right, so it’s the concentration of particles floating in the air. Now EQI talks about multiple different particle sizes, it also incorporates ozone, which is where the unit lessness comes from this, but oftentimes in that AQa, when you’re looking, it will break down specifically what say, the PM 2.5, or what the ozone values are. And there are certainly slightly different effects that are occurring there. But if you want one global number to be able to quickly look in a SaaS EQI, or what is the quality of the air that I’m breathing, then that’s where it is. And so typically, an AQ I value of zero to 50 is good, there’s no issues, you can go out and exercise. And as that number goes up between 50 to 100, oftentimes, that’s a moderate. And they’ll say, Hey, if you have any sort of outstanding or chronic issues, then you know, maybe the air quality is less safe for you. And this goes all the way kind of increasing until you’re at the 300. Words like this is just frankly, hazardous to your health. People should avoid consuming this air regardless of any pre existing conditions. Don’t exercise, don’t go outside, so on and so forth. So great range to be aware of when you’re exercising, depending on the city or the time of year that’s occurring.

Griffin McMath  12:50

I think if you know what conditions you may be prone to from, you’re feeling medical history or own circumstances, then when you download apps like these, maybe even set the notifications to an AQ I that’s more appropriate for you. Because in so many things in life, where we say, oh, it’s safe up to this amount, or you know, you’re okay. We don’t necessarily always have enough data at this point on many of those categories. So being able to draw a line to say what’s safe and what isn’t for acute versus chronic exposure, talking about obviously, not only size mattering but what actually those compounds are. Yeah,

Rob Pickels  13:24

Griffin, I think that all of this, these are great points. And something to point out is oftentimes the effects of particulate matter exposure. Well, it takes time for them to develop, and it’s out long term exposure that really matters. And so you know, the AQ AI can not be that great, but you can still go outside and exercise. It’s not like it’s going to stop you from exercising. And you might not have say, a heart attack that day because of it, right? It’s not like we can say, oh, that pain was 151 degrees. And so you got a second degree burn from it. But what people have to be cognizant of is, even though in the moment, the AQa doesn’t seem that bad, even though in the moment it feels like it’s probably okay to go out and exercise, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is safe to continue doing stuff like that long term. You

Griffin McMath  14:11

know, being mindful of your symptoms, to Rob’s point and the things he’s talked about before. It’s not going to be instantaneous for these more chronic long term exposures, or the smaller the particulate matter. But if you do find yourself in a situation where you may be, let’s say you’re on Hawaii Island, and the volcano erupts, and you have to be outside, you’re gonna you’re gonna be surrounded by more exposure than you would and that might give you a hint, how your body could react in certain situations. So again, chronic exposure versus maybe acute, will give you something different to look at. I’ll

Trevor Connor  14:46

just quickly mention that we did talk about a QI and these different measures of air quality in that episode 171 It was an interesting conversation because the expert was saying none of these is a perfect? No.

Rob Pickels  15:00

Yeah. So we’re talking a lot about how air quality index about how particulate matter are affecting people. And Griffin, you brought up the great point about individualization of people based on some chronic illness. And I think that that’s a really interesting area to touch on next. There are obviously a lot of different groups out there. And I’m including athletes as one of these special condition groups. And the reason I want to do that is because athletes oftentimes are at higher risk for pulmonary issues, especially when it comes to particulate matter, because they’re spending so much time oftentimes exercising outdoors. Exercise itself, by nature involves breathing in a heck of a lot more oxygen and carrying more this particulate matter into your lungs. And lastly, something that’s really interesting and unique is, especially with runners and cyclists, the activity is oftentimes done so often right next to active roadways, where they’re being directly exposed to the exhaust from cars. You know, we see a little bit higher incidence, I believe, a study of the US Olympic athletes showed a 25% increase in asthma over a normal population for triathletes. And they like in this, this was the highest value, because those athletes are spending all of their time training either outside or in a pool situation. And breathing in the chlorine and other chemicals can also be irritating to lungs, just like this particulate matter. So you know, it’s a very high incidence that we’re having of issues like asthma, Road Runners and road cyclists were a little bit lower at 17%. And then a lot of the other Olympic sports that weren’t near these active roadways, or weren’t breeding in these chemicals, if you talk about fencing, I believe rowing, all of them had relatively low increases in asthma. So with this group of active athletes, it was really easy to tie this higher statistic together to the exposure to the particulate matter that they’re seeing. You

Griffin McMath  16:58

mentioned athletes as a special population. And obviously, for those who are children, individuals with respiratory conditions, pregnant persons, any other special population. So you can think of that, while we’re talking about this, you can think of,

Rob Pickels  17:14

yeah, Griffin, I’m gonna leave some of the medical ones specifically to you. But I do want to touch on both masters and children for two different reasons age can have a factor here for children, oftentimes, you know, their immune system is is still developing. And that makes it relatively weak, and having a harder time dealing with, you know, the particulate matter that they’re having and making sure that there’s a healthy response within the body. Another really interesting thing about kids is, they’re shorter, which puts them lower to the ground, which puts them again, I mentioned exhaust earlier for the athletes. But it puts them more close to a higher concentration of the exhaust particulate matter which I found really interesting that there is statistical significance between just being taller and then being, you know, say, a three foot tall child. So children definitely have their issues. On the master side, you know, there’s going to be decreased immunity or immune action there as well as we age, but then also just the increase in some sort of long term dysfunction, within pulmonary, or increases in potential other disease processes that are happening. And as we begin talking about the inflammation that occurs within the body, then there’s a big exacerbation of all of these different sorts of disease processes that are happening. And in the Masters athlete, that’s going to be that much more apparent. So, you know, Griffin, I’m actually going to throw it back to you. And I know that you’re a bit more with your background, a bit more of a expert in terms of some of the medical things that can happen. So what do you see there?

Griffin McMath  18:45

I mean, Robbie, you did talk about older individuals, you talked about children, we’re looking at a variety of different factors, right, coming down to height. So how tall someone might be out close that just their proximity when they’re walking on the street, or running, or cycling, how close they may be to exhaust obviously, elderly individuals, which you know, is often labeled as 65 and older individuals who are pregnant and their respective fetus, people with existing lung disease. So asthma, COPD, you know, a variety of conditions there. And then something too is people who actually work outdoors. So we’re looking at people who are in construction, who are, you know, maybe out on the street, I think of like street vendors in New York City, these people who are constantly outside as well for their jobs. So as it relates to coaches, we’re talking a lot about athletes right now. But what about the coaches who spend, you know, their nine to five on the pool deck or, you know, crouching over the side of the pool. So, it’s not just athletes, either. Even in this industry, we have to think about the coaches as well who are exposing themselves to this particular matter.

Trevor Connor  19:54

One thing that’s also really important to mention here when we’re talking about exposure and who’s at risk Rob You had brought up earlier as best dose. Asbestos is something that is, when you look at human history is something we’ve been exposed to very, very recently and our bodies don’t know how to handle. But pollen particles from forest fires, particles from volcanoes erupt in a lot of these other things, wind storms, all these things have been part of our history throughout all of our evolution. So our bodies are designed to handle a certain amount of insult. Our lungs are designed to be able to handle a certain amount of this. So it’s not like there’s a little bit of pollution in the air, oh my God put on the mask stay inside, you’re in trouble. We do have the systems to be able to handle some of this, we

Griffin McMath  20:42

  1. And then you have the increase in the amount of chemicals we use and the 1900s Even with how we paint our walls, the candles and name any popular company that everyone may be while they’re shopping right now for the holidays, purchasing these as gifts. But we have that we have incense, we have the fragrance we put on our bodies, you know, even sometimes athletes with the you know, we go on a workout and then afterwards we’re trying to mask what has happened. And we spray cologne or perfume all over us just to, you know, get by. But all of these things. These are kind of our chronic indoor hazardous materials on our health as well, not just outside. But these things we’re constantly and increasingly exposing ourselves to Yeah, it’s

Rob Pickels  21:24

really interesting to me, they’ve done studies of particulate matter exposure across sports, and we talked about increase in prevalence and asthma with Olympic sports, there is an increase in errors in Major League Baseball associated with increases in particulate matter exposure. So even skill based sports people are struggling with making decisions. And and that’s why I thought it was really interesting. You brought up coaches and the exposure that coaches are having, while there’s certainly impact on the health, the long term effects on health that we’re discussing, in that major league baseball study, there was actually I believe, an increase in errors made by the general managers as well, some decision making wasn’t as good. And that directly affects coaches and in a performance standpoint. So I do just want to keep reiterating that we both have acute and long term issues associated with this particulate matter exposure. How

Griffin McMath  22:19

do you justify that at your annual performance review? It’s not me, it’s the air.

Rob Pickels  22:23

I know, that’d be great, right? You can just walk around with an air quality monitor all the time. And then you know, correlate and charts, I think charts, that’s how you do it, every go. These are all the terrible decisions I made, and the air quality for each of those days. So I

Trevor Connor  22:37

gotta share when I was a kid, my brother and I were in this old barn, and there was all this insulation in their old insulation, the mid obviously ripped out of a house or a building somewhere. So of course, my brother and I thought it’d be really cool to pile all this up and dive in it. Pretty sure we gave ourselves a giant, bestest bomb and made me the person I am today.

Rob Pickels  22:57

It has, in fact made you with a wonderful, Trevor that you are today.

Trevor Connor  23:02

This is I get these little ticks.

Griffin McMath  23:04

sighs switching over there. But I do think that this kind of goes back to what I was mentioning earlier. If you have chronic lower levels that you’re being exposed to, you may not be able to recognize what’s happening, you may just accept this as normal, until someone comes out to your sport and starts doing studies and tell you you’re messing up because of their quality. But then you might be exposed in a more acute sense, and be able to recognize how your body may be more prone to respond. So as an example, I lived in Kailua Kona for about two years and prior to arriving, the vog the volcano fog had died down quite a bit. But at some point while I was there, there was you know, more eruptions, and we would get air quality warnings to our phones, but then also you just knew not really to go outside, but you live on an island that’s such as life you are outside all the time. And so each person would respond just a little bit differently. Obviously, there are a few big common symptoms that would happen. But you could tell people who are more prone to a respiratory response more people who responded more likely to have brain fog, right? So what different systems were more weakened and your body and more susceptible. So I think if you happen to ever be exposed, not saying go to a really, you know, polluted area, and just submerge yourself into this environment, just to see, but if you do take note what symptoms are more likely for you? Yeah,

Rob Pickels  24:29

while we’re on the topic of symptoms, you know, unfortunately, we live in Colorado before Colorado, I lived in Montana and both of those places are very prone to forest fires and even forest fires that are originating in other states or even in Canada and other countries blowing down. And it’s interesting. I know oftentimes, I ended up feeling almost hung over a little bit just this, this low grade headache, this low grade malaise kind of just a bit of fatigue brain fog, like you mentioned in initial li when you’re not outside and acutely exercising in it, it’s always very confusing why I feel that way when I’m inside my house and we run an extra air filter, and we run great air filters in our HVAC system. But still, this hung over and this makes it through. And so, yeah, then when you’re outside exercising in a Gosh, that’s like a totally different world, you know, and to really have to dial back your intensity and just kind of feel like garbage, you do end up questioning if it’s worthwhile. But I’m glad you know, Griffin that you’re saying to take note of how you’re feeling because you have to be a little bit more cerebral about the long term effects, you just need to know that they’re happening because you might not feel those long term effects happening right away. But you can certainly feel how you feel in that moment when you’re exercising and poor air quality. If you’re an endurance athlete, the status of your GI system stretches further than just your overall health. It directly impacts athletic performance, tune into fast Oxfam’s episode 123 To listen, as Dr. Alan Lim sheds light on groundbreaking gi information that every coach and athlete can benefit from to leverage and optimize their nutrition plan. Check it out at fast talk So we’ve talked a lot at the high level of what particulate matter is, what a Qi is, how that you can be affected in the long term by this at a global level. But, Trevor, what I’d love to hear and I know that you have been itching to talk about this and why I am so happy that you’re on the show, I would love to hear a little bit deeper systemically, what is actually happening inside of our body that is causing all of these negative things that we know particulate matter is exposed to.

Trevor Connor  26:47

So I met I wasn’t all that excited about this episode until you said I want to look at the inflammatory side of it. And then I just kind of nerd it out. That’s why I’m a nerd. Actually don’t sell myself short. I’m just a nerd. But no, I was pretty excited about this. But reading the research was very interesting. And I’ll start by just giving you an example of one of the issues I ran into I did read a really good review that pulled together all the the recent research looking at the inflammatory effects of particulate matter. And at first I kind of had a laugh at it because it literally was saying particulate matter causes everything. Like it even brought up. Well, it’s correlates with blood glucose levels and blood triglycerides, and I’m sitting there going, explain to me how that happens. Unless there’s sugar attached to this particulate matter, I don’t see how that can particularly be correlated. And Rob, you asked me to do the research, you know, give the explanation of how’s it causing that inflammation, look at the particular cytokines they talked about in in this review. So cytokines are the messengers of the immune system, they raised the different cytokines that are associated with particulate matter. And literally, it was the complete list of cytokines, I could barely think of a single cytokine except for il 10, that they did not put in their list. And they brought up a bunch that I’ve never heard of myself. So you read this review, and you go, Oh, my God, this stuff is going to kill you. Because every single possible disease in existence is associated with this. So I had to take step back and look at this. And I think as we go into this conversation, here’s the really important thing to remember when we’re talking about this research, which is we have talked about how difficult it is to conduct studies on athletes. And with athletes, you can bring them into a lab, you can control things, you know, there’s the issues of studies tend to be low numbers, only six, seven athletes tend to only be six weeks is hard to do a two year study. So there’s issues there, but you still have something you can control. When you’re talking about particulate matter, which we know is bad for your health. There are ethical considerations here. You can’t say, let’s bring a bunch of people in the lab and expose them to high levels of these different particulates and see what it does to them. Well Oh, you can try? Well, it’s gonna be we’ll talk about a study where they did yeah, they’re rare. Yeah, it’s gonna be hard to do. So most of the research is epidemiological studies, which is basically, they find people in a region, they measure the air quality, they look at correlations with the air quality, and then try to say, here’s the impacts on people. So it can correlate with a whole lot of things. And one of the issues I have is regions on the planet that are going to tend to have higher pollution levels, like when you’re in a city have other correlations as well. There’s lifestyle differences. There’s dietary differences, so it’s going to be really hard to set Write these. Hence, you’re gonna have a correlation with particulate matter and blood glucose levels. And you have to be careful about saying, well, that’s causal these particulars raise your blood glucose levels and lead you to diabetes. No, they don’t, it’s correlational. So we do have to be careful. And they’re still trying to obviously figure this out. And another thing that we talked about very early on, which is review raised is they’re looking at particulate size, but you have different compositions of different particulates. And they raise the, you know, if you have one that’s just a heavy metal, or it’s just dust versus something that actually has a biological matter. And like some of these particulates can have a bacteria bound to it, it can have LPS bound to it, which we can talk more about in a minute. So the different types of particulates are gonna have different effects. So full respect to the researchers is a tough thing to research.

Griffin McMath  30:53

I don’t know if I believe that that’s complete correlation, because Joe persona is a physician has given some really great talks on this. But when you do so much damage, this has become deposited into your bloodstream, or it’s affecting the integrity of your vasculature, all of these other processes that rely on those systems running smoothly relying on that integrity, it can create that downstream effect.

Trevor Connor  31:15

Yeah. And that’s what they bring up in this review, which I do think is legitimate is the issue of the particular matters or causes systemic inflammation. And I’m happy to dive deep into how it does that, why it does that. But whenever you are dealing with inappropriate systemic inflammation that’s going to be involved in a whole lot of disease processes. You know, most of the current chronic diseases of civilization, start with chronic inflammation, is what you’re saying. So, you know, what I’m getting at is we have to be careful about how much we’re associating with. And I do think where they need to get to is the mechanisms and some of the research I’ve read had a very clear mechanism. Some of the other researchers said, these are correlations, and to me until they can say here is how particulate matter can lead to this particular condition. It’s just a correlation. Yeah,

Rob Pickels  32:05

in the causation correlation, you know, debate is is always difficult. And sometimes you never actually know why something is the way that it is right? And even when we talk about exercise science topics like rapamycin or whatever else, then we oftentimes end up in the situation. But what is well known is certainly, Trevor, as you mentioned, the systemic inflammation that occurs, there was an increase in oxidative stress, there was an increase in endocrine disruption. Definitely impaired vascular function, we have some research directly that shows that and it’s actually there’s some studies from Ken Rondelle, that very much like pollute people with engine exhaust, and they studied that one directly. And then there are correlations as well with things like obesity and metabolic syndrome. With those sort of being multifactorial, then then it’s hard to say causal at that point. So and then I have seen some studies that say, yeah, there is a direct impact itself on glucose and insulin. But you know, as you mentioned, before, the causal nature, the link, there isn’t quite well understood. They don’t know exactly how that’s functioning at this point. Okay,

Griffin McMath  33:06

Trevor, to your favorite topic, ever, I’m pretty convinced are one at the top three, systemic inflammation, we kind of started talking about this. But let’s look at the effects of this overall general stomach inflammation. And where does it go? What does it lead to in the body?

Trevor Connor  33:24

So I think we need to start by talking about how particulate matter something you’re breathing in, can start to lead to systemic inflammation. And then what I’m actually do is quick jump here. So my research where I’ve really focused on in the the inflammation side is nutrition. But let’s just talk about the the immune system in general, everybody thinks about the immune system, as you get a cold, it’s something that activates, it takes care of a cold, you get sick for a little bit, that tends to be how we think of it. But it’s something like 75 to 80% of our immune system actually lives right around our gut. And right around our lungs, there’s a lot that the immune system has to deal with, where you have these points of entry. So the lungs, that’s where air enters into your system and the gut, that’s where the food that you eat enters into your system. And there’s a lot that can come in that you don’t want to have come in. So that’s where the immune system is doing its heaviest lift. And when the immune systems working well, and when the digestive system and the lungs are working well, it blocks any sort of insults and you only have what you want to have enter into your system. Enter in where you start having issues is when things start getting in that you don’t want to get in. So when I was studying this from the digestive standpoint, there’s this particular molecule called lectins that are really good at bypassing the whole digestive defense system and get into circulation. And what they can also do is bind to smaller particles and pull those particles in with them. And then those things can cause all sorts of wreck all sorts of havoc in your body. And that leads with the digestive system to all sorts of systemic inflammation. What I’ve been studying for years and years and years is all the different ways that sort of inappropriate inflammation due to things getting into your system that shouldn’t from the gut can contribute to almost every single chronic disease. So what I found interesting about the research that he had me do for this episode, is you see all these parallels in the lung, it’s same thing you have this immune system, around the lungs that try to protect the system from having things come in from the lungs that you don’t want to have come in. So when I was studying the justice system, I was studying the CD 14 macrophages. So this research what they were talking about as alveolar macrophages, and it just was like I was reading the exact same thing, different name, but exact same process exact does the exact same thing has the same response when things get in that shouldn’t get in. So reading about the PM, two point fives and the pm ones, those can both actually get into circulation, they can get around the defenses of the epithelium and the lungs, and get into the system. And they can also just like those lectins, I was telling you about, pull other things in with them, like small viruses can be bound to them, bacteria can be bound to them, LPs can be bound to them, a lot of things can be bound to them, and get into circulation, and then same thing, activate the immune system caused this inappropriate systemic inflammation. And from there, it’s not too different from what happens with the gut. So the parallels here to me were fascinating. I’ve always just studied it from the dietary side. But it’s very, very similar from this side with this with this particulate matter.

Rob Pickels  36:48

Yeah, Trevor, it’s super interesting how the chronic upregulating of the inflammatory system leads to a lot of these long term sort of diseases, right, we can talk about diseases that are occurring in the lungs, like asthma or fibrosis, we can also talk about diseases that cause elsewhere in the body, you know, there’s a huge increase in cardiovascular events. What’s really interesting to me though, is the inflammation that the body is experiencing also has acute effects. And up regulating ramping up of that immune function of the inflammatory function can cause acute heart attacks, and which I found really interesting, as well as strokes, even after relatively short term exposure. So the inflammatory system that you’re talking about is something that’s really powerful within the body. And it has the ability to have both these long term effects, but also some really short acting effects as well.

Trevor Connor  37:48

So you asked me to look into some of the cytokines that the research so there was a ton of research looking at these particulate matter, and trying to figure out does this cause inflammation, and they looked at three particular cytokines, mostly because these are heavy players when we’re talking about inappropriate inflammation in the body. So I think they just kind of gravitated towards those. But there was a fair amount of evidence that when you are breathing in this particulate matter, you’re going to elevate all three. And the research was a little bit mixed. Some research said it elevates ease in the short run not in the long term. There was actually one study that was quite impressed by that was conducted in Sweden, where I think they were able to control things a lot better, and looked at both short term and long term elevation of these particular cytokines and found that Yep, elevates in the short run, and really elevates it in the long run, if you’re exposed to that particulate matter for a long time. So I’ll give you the short short version of all three, just to give you an idea of the impact here, but the first one is il six. And il six is one of your more heavily researched cytokines. It is a giant player when it comes to inflammation. It’s kind of that early messenger that says something’s wrong. Get the immune system ramped up, get moving, do something about this. So it is an important signaler. And certainly all the research I read said, particulate matter can really elevate il six teams. So that’s an important one. Another one was il eight. And you know, we just talked about the macrophages. Well, iOS eight is a messenger that basically says, hey, something’s going on. Macrophages get here do something to macrophages are part of your innate immune system. And they’re one of the earlier players that comes in when you have some sort of insult some sort of infection coming into the system and macrophages are the first things that come in and try to do something about it. They consume the virus, they tried to break it down. You know, when they talked about the immune system as an army. They’re that first soldier that you send in to try to take care of things and then the other really big one was something called TNF alpha. And TNF alpha plays a lot of roles in our body. So I keep talking about LPS. LPS stands for lipid polysaccharides. It’s a marker that you find on bacteria. And that’s how your body knows when bacteria has gotten into the system is when it identifies LPs. And you’ll see in this research, a lot of it talks about toll like receptor for TLR four, which is something you find on a lot of cells that binds to LPs and identifies it. So we have many of these toll like receptors, but this particular one identifies LPs, and then it will upregulate TNF alpha. So the reason I’m bringing that up, it goes back to that point of the composition of the particulate matter is important. If you have a inorganic particulate matter that might not elevate TNF alpha. But if this is an organic particulate matter, that’s where you might start seeing that identification of LPs. And it brings up TNF alpha and TNF alpha is is very inflammatory. It has many effects in the body, and some of them are good, some of them aren’t so good if it’s chronically elevated. So one of them which we’re I know we’re gonna go to in a minute, is it promotes adhesion within your vascular system, which we’re going to talk about that’s critical to cardiovascular disease. So you don’t want TNF alpha constantly upregulating that it helps to bring immune cells into attack and consume pathogens, that’s obviously a good thing that you want. Interestingly, TNF alpha is also involved in regulation of absorption of sugar from your gut. But another really important one is TNF alpha can cause tight junctions to open up. So when we’re talking about your gut, when we’re talking about your lungs, they are lined with these epithelial cells that are really tightly bound to one another so that the body can control what gets entry into the system. And you want those cells very tightly bound like that. So when people are talking about leaky gut, leaky gut is just an opening up of those tight junctions, and then things can get between the cells. TNF alpha can help regulate that and unfortunately, can open up those tight junctions so you don’t want TNF alpha constantly upregulated in your system. 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Rob Pickels  43:02

Trevor, you’re mentioned to the cardiovascular system. And I do think it would be great if we continue discussing about that brought to mind a fourth molecule that you didn’t mention in here, and I’m just going to bring it up briefly. You mentioned il six will il six can upregulate, something called fibrinogen. And fibrinogen is a major component on both in terms of an inflammatory pathway, but more importantly, the formation of blood clots. It’s one of the major components of the clot itself. And that’s where the direct link to having increased heart attacks occur because heart attacks are occurring because of a clotting process happening in the coronary arteries. And so yeah, this inflammatory pathway, both has a long term, but again, there’s one of the acute sort of effects.

Trevor Connor  43:42

Yeah, so let me explain this, given an analogy. So people hear about atherosclerotic plaques in their blood vessels, I’m not going to go deep into the explanation of these, if we want to ever do that we could do a whole episode on this. But let me give you an analogy of a river. So imagine a river that has a smooth bottom, maybe it just has some sand in it and smooth banks, that water is going to flow down the river and it’s going to flow very well nothing’s going to collect in the rivers, you’re going to have this nice, clean river. That’s what you want in your blood vessels. You just want the blood and everything that’s in the blood to be able to just flow smoothly through those blood vessels to get to where it needs to get to. What happens with an astronomic plaque is think about that river again, imagine a tree falls into the river. That tree as you know, is going to start collecting things that flow down the river are gonna get bound up in it and you’re gonna get this big, messy thing in the middle of the river. That’s, you know, started as just this tree that fell over but now there’s a whole bunch of things connected to it. And that’s kind of the very simplified way to think of this atherosclerotic plaque is things start getting bound to the side of the blood vessel for a variety of Reasons, macrophages will come in. And you have this strange effect that those macrophages will burrow into the epithelial cells, and then become what’s called a spongy macrofossil. It’ll literally just kind of grow in size. But what you’re basically having is this plaque that’s collecting a bunch of junk from inside the blood vessel, and growing on the side of the blood vessel, that in and of itself is not horrible. Because those plaques can exist in your blood vessels for the rest of your life and never cause any damage, the damages when they break when they burst, and then everything that’s in that plaque gets released. And that causes a real insult to your system to your body. So going back to what you were talking about, I talked about TNF alpha kind of promotes adhesion within blood vessels. So does fibrinogen. So that’s basically helping things bind to the size of the blood vessel, and then this growing of the plaque brings in the macrophages and you get what you don’t want, which is this app, the sclerotic plaque. And like I said, that’s a very simplified explanation. I hope that made sense.

Rob Pickels  46:05

Yeah, Trevor, if if I can, I want to actually continue what you’re talking about a little bit, because you said something that was really important, and that was the braking or the rupturing of that plaque is ultimately what can cause damage, right, as those pieces flow downstream, then they get clogged up later on, and that can cause a full on blockage. Well, the biggest factor or one of the bigger factors in breaking of those plaques, the rupture there is the blood pressure that the system is experiencing. And one of the biggest factors there is the size of the blood vessels, right, so blood vessels that are nice and large and open, they’re going to exhibit a lower blood pressure and hopefully less risk of rupturing these plaque. But one of those crazy Saudis I alluded to before Ken Rondelle, out of Marywood University, had a group of athletes exercise on a soccer field next to a busy roadway, and then on a more secluded point in campus, and they were able to really quantify the pm one exposure that these athletes had. And those athletes that were exercising on the soccer field next to the roadway, had a much larger increase in vasoconstriction. So narrowing of blood vessels, and then also a decrease in reperfusion. So if he blocked off the blood flow to part of their arm and then allowed it to return again, not nearly as much blood came in, which is ultimately just a different way of saying that the blood vessels are smaller. So you know, that’s what that pm one is able to really exacerbate the situation that we’re talking about with the TNF alpha, increasing localized blood pressure and potentially increasing the risk of rupturing some of these plaques.

Trevor Connor  47:38

Yeah, so in short, something you don’t want.

Griffin McMath  47:42

So in short, not good. In fact,

Rob Pickels  47:44

in short, the worst study that I read about on here was another Rondelle study, and they had hockey players exercise in a room with a two and a half power gas engine, they ran for 30 seconds each minute. So 50% of the time, they’re running this gas engine and making the people breathe the exhaustion, and hey, they have lower performance, you know, go figure.

Griffin McMath  48:03

What was the consent form on this study? I have so many questions. Was this approved? Or is this

Rob Pickels  48:09

it? Yeah, there was a major thing I IRB approval here, it does seem like it’s easier to like have people exercise outdoor on a soccer field, versus like, you know, inundating them with exhaust from a motor would. It’s really interesting to me, I happened to fly to Boston last week. And as I was driving from the airport, to my house, it was amazing how many soccer fields and running tracks are right next to major highways underneath an airport. And all I could think about was was this study and the vasoconstriction, and everything they found so so

Trevor Connor  48:41

the other one that was covered pretty well. And what I read was the impact on the nervous system, particularly the brain and neuro degeneration. And this mechanism was explained pretty well, there is evidence. So again, we talked about these epithelial barriers, these tight junction barriers that don’t allow anything to get past that barrier. There is what’s called the blood brain barrier, it’s the same thing, brain is very protective about what it allows in. And there is evidence that these smaller particulate matter if they can get into circulation from your lungs, can go up to the brain and actually get around the blood brain barrier. And they can pull cytokines in with them, which will then lead to neuro inflammation inside the brain. And they actually activate the microglia in the brain. And once again, I talked about how every different system has similarities, but different names for microglia are basically the macrophages of the brain, just given a different name, and pretty extensive and pretty convincing explanation in this research about how that then can contribute to amyloid build up which is what you see in Alzheimer’s and contribute to a variety of neurodegenerative diseases. And I remember in Have you and Dr. Bredesen has now written a couple books and Alzheimer’s and has some fairly convincing evidence of working with multiple patients and bringing them out of Alzheimer’s. They’re now in remission. And he talks extensively in his books about air quality and air pollution.

Griffin McMath  50:16

And some of the research that I did prior to this episode, I would echo that there was a variety of literature on Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, other dementias. And then even a study that had looked at whether long chain Omega three polyunsaturated fatty acid levels, would modify the potential neurotoxic effects of PM 2.5 or less the exposure on what appeared to be normal appearing brain volumes among dementia free elderly women. And so when you looked at this, you’re looking at brain shrinkage and the neurotoxic effects of particulate matter. And even some dietary interventions, that can be pretty neat. But when you hear those phrases, it’s just so alarming how something you can’t see can just cause such, you know, an absolute chaos within the system, even to the actual brain volume.

Rob Pickels  51:09

Yeah, Griffin, you’re making great points. As always, and especially that something you can’t see point is really important. I think that now is a great time to begin discussing, moving away from all the bad things that happen in your body. What can we actually do to help protect ourselves both in terms of long term health, but also in terms of acute complications that can arise because, hey, we’re all athletes, our listeners, for the most part are athletes. And I don’t know that the perfect recommendation is to just not exercise one particular matter as high. And so I would love to hear and to talk about what can be done moving forward. For people who now have this information.

Trevor Connor  51:47

I will start the conversation by saying, we’re talking to an athlete audience here right now. And one of the best things you can do is exercise for a variety of reasons. One, we didn’t dive deep into this, there’s like I said, a lot of things we can dive deep into. But Rob, you touched on this, that the particulate matter, it seems to increase oxidative stress. Well, exercise has natural antioxidant properties. So it helps there. Now the thing is exercise can be anti inflammatory, it can bring down il six and TNF alpha. So it can counter at least some of the effects that we were talking about what this particulate matter. So you know, it’s kind of a, where’s the balance here, because obviously, you don’t want to be going out running or riding and heavy pollution, you don’t want to go up into the mountains when there’s a forest fire up there. So maybe it stay inside on the train or on those bad days. But exercise is definitely going to help.

Griffin McMath  52:44

And when you do, I would say use those apps and the websites that we talked about earlier to assess what time of day. So typically, these levels in many areas are lowered in the morning and lower in the evening. So you’re adjusting the time of your workout, modifying your workout. So like you said, what can be done inside maybe in the morning or in the evening, what can be done, or what can be done outside in the morning in the evening, and what can be done in the inside during the day. So modifying your workout. And then when you are training indoors, you know, considering those air filters, as well, depending on where you’re at.

Rob Pickels  53:17

Yeah, just something to tie to things that you just mentioned, Griffin, if you do look at what the AQ AI is, and I had thrown out earlier, you can look at places like air, or purple, you can even just type a QI into a Google search, it’ll give you a number. If it’s the PM 10, that is especially high, then I think that you’re relatively safe to exercise indoors, because there’s relatively little penetration of PM 10 from outside to inside. But if it’s a PM 2.5 Or a pm one, then that does penetrate into an indoor structure. And so you’re not necessarily too much safer inside or outside unless you are doing things like filtering the air that’s inside of your house. Another thing that’s really interesting, and that I love is to be thinking about the route that you’re taking. And maybe this is more of a general thing, right? Because if there’s a forest fire than for the most part, you know, an area is going to be blanketed wind can affect that and whatnot a little bit. But this is maybe an argument as to moving away from exercising next to busy roads and streets. Maybe trail running is a bit healthier for you than road running is maybe all your road cyclists switch over to gravel and mountain biking, which is just obviously better. But the recommendation is, you know, try to be 250 meters away from any major traffic source that’s occurring out there on on a day to day basis.

Trevor Connor  54:41

You know, I think another place to look at is your home. So remember when we’re talking about particulate matter, we’re not just talking about pollution, we’re talking about both natural and man made causes of particulate matter and there’s a lot of natural sources and if you are not Cleaning your home right you can have mold buildup you can have fungus build up those both released particles into the air that you don’t see and you’re not aware of that you’re breathing them in. A lot of these chemicals that we use in our home also will really small particles in the air that can have an effect on your body. So keeping your home clean and using better cleaners, not just necessarily the cheapest cleaners can actually have a big impact too.

Griffin McMath  55:25

And the things we add to our homes, like I mentioned earlier, do you can use similar pots instead of candles or incense. Be mindful of what fragrances you’re putting on your body. All of these things can have an impact as well.

Rob Pickels  55:38

You’re taking away my two favorite things, man cologne and candles. The to see now my life, you know, killing me, Griffin.

Griffin McMath  55:45

I’m slowly trying to fade my habit out as well.

Rob Pickels  55:50

I only burned my candles outside.

Trevor Connor  55:52

Oh, you did have one in your office used to be nice walking in.

Rob Pickels  55:55

That was a candle warmer. In fact in the office. Yes.

Trevor Connor  55:58

That was one of those things that melts the wax. Yeah, exactly. Probably no better for you. Let’s

Rob Pickels  56:02

be on actually there’s no combustion. So maybe it’s like marginally better for you. Just like vaping is marginally better than smoking. Yeah. So

Griffin McMath  56:09

that’s make that is that the vape argument? It’s healthier. Yeah, exactly.

Rob Pickels  56:14

Right. Neither of them are healthy. Let’s be honest. Candles are out people. Sorry to tell you. I

Trevor Connor  56:19

hate to tell you about vaping to my nieces like to vape. So they asked me if it’s healthier than smoking. And I went and read. I’m not an expert on this. But I went and read some of the research. And what I read said evidence points to vaping is actually as bad if not potentially worse. Yeah, that

Rob Pickels  56:35

hey, let’s not get into that topic. That is not a can of worms. I feel like opening

Trevor Connor  56:39

today. It is breathing in particular. It

Rob Pickels  56:42

is a particular matter, though by food.

Griffin McMath  56:45

So one thing we didn’t cover that I just want to you know, I think there’s a natural question when this topic comes up, is to wear a mask or not to wear mask. Do we have any final comments or action items for athletes and wearing masks?

Rob Pickels  57:01

Yeah, Griffin, it’s a really interesting question. If we purely look at filter size, and this is all that I’m going to base my opinion on, if we purely look at filter size, K or an N 95 Mask filters down to five microns, whereas a lot of the particulate matter that we’re talking about today are 2.5 or one micron, meaning smaller, the larger the more dust like particles, like pm 10. Those are probably effectively filtered out by a mask but I think a lot of the air pollution stuff that we’re talking about a mask probably doesn’t touch to tell you the truth.

Trevor Connor  57:34

The thing I will add to that is remembered during COVID When they told us to wear masks, people misinterpret those all the time. It’s not really to protect you, it’s to protect other people because those masks are very good at catching any of the particulate comes out of your mouth or nose which is mostly going straight out the mass is going to catch that but unless those masks are absolutely flush completely around your face, you have openings on the sides and bottom and top and unfiltered air is gonna get in there so if there is these particulates of COVID in the air it’s gonna get through the mask isn’t designed to like it’s just a K 95 mask isn’t designed to fully protect you. You want to fully protect yourself you gotta be used in one of those heavy duty full face masks

Rob Pickels  58:22

love respirator yeah and and I would probably say if you’re in a situation where you’re questioning if you should wear a mask or not maybe it’s best that you just take that day off

Trevor Connor  58:29

There you go. That was another episode of Fast Talk subscribe to Fast Talk wherever you prefer to find your favorite podcast. Be sure to leave us a rating and review. The thoughts and opinions expressed in Fast Talk those of the individual. As always, we’d love your feedback, tweet us @fasttalklabs or join the conversation at, and of course go to to learn from our experts for Rob Pickels and Griffin McMath. I’m Trevor Connor. Thanks for listening!