Wildfire smoke continues to affect the health of Bay Area residents

Satellites image showing smoke rising from wildfires hovering the Bay Area on August 6, 2018. Photo courtesy of NASA.

Satellites image showing smoke rising from wildfires hovering the Bay Area on August 6, 2018. Photo courtesy of NASA.

The recent wildfires that burned across the state have destroyed over 1.4 million acres of land and left Bay Area residents breathing smoky air for weeks.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District is extending an air quality advisory for smoke through today for the entire region. This was followed by the district issuing a Spare the Air Alert just a day before. It’s the eleventh Spare the Air alert this year.

“That’s fairly high given that we’re not yet out of the [wildfire] season. We have another two months or so to go,” said Ralph Borrmann, public information officer for the district.

“So far this summer, we’ve had three excesses of ozone standards at the federal level and several more at the state level. So there’s definitely concerns around air quality during these times in the year,” he added.

For comparison, 27 alerts were issued in 2016, the highest number since the program started in 1991. Last year, there were 18.

For many, the short period of bad air days could mean needing to reduce their outdoor activities. For other more vulnerable groups—children, seniors, people with chronic sicknesses—it could hit a lot harder.

Dr. Ngoc Ly, a professor of pediatrics at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland, said there has been a slight increase in the number of patients at the clinic, but many families are seeking medical advice over the phone, especially for children with asthma and other chronic lung diseases.

“More people I think are taking precautions since California unfortunately has had many wildfires over the years,” she wrote in an email. She advised people to stay indoors with windows and doors closed when the air is bad, and to wear N95 masks if they have to go out.

Alvina Wong, Oakland organizing director for Asian Pacific Environmental Network, an organization based in the Bay Area that focuses on the environment and social justice, said the smoke from the fire had affected some communities more.

“Some of my co-workers had to take a day off because of headache,” Wong said, referring to the effect of the smoke from the recent wildfire. She said that the wildfire smoke is also adding to the baseline pollution in Oakland’s Chinatown area, where construction and industry are already blowing pollutants into the air.

In addition to respiratory sicknesses, polluted air increases risks for cancer, stroke, heart diseases and premature death, according to fact sheets published by the World Health Organization. Particulate matter is the most dangerous of pollutants. It’s a mixture of sulfate, nitrates, ammonia, sodium chloride, black carbon, mineral dust and water that gets suspended in the air. When particles have a diameter of 2.5 microns or smaller, they can penetrate the lung barrier and enter the blood system.

According to a report from the Environmental Protection Agency, 40 percent of the total particulate matter emitted in the country comes from wildland fires, including wildfires and prescribed fires.

In addition to smoke from burning forests, pollutants coming from car exhaust, including ozone and particulate matter, are causes of public health concern. Dr. Kirk Smith, a professor of global environmental health at UC Berkeley, spends half his time in Delhi, one of the world’s worst cities for ambient air pollution. He said compared to other parts of the world, like China and India, the air quality is very good here in California. But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be better.

“One of the issues in recent years has been the wildfires,” Smith said when talking about sources for air pollution in the state. He mentioned the extent of the fires is probably due to climate change. “So there will be more wildfires and there will be more air pollution from the wildfires,” he said.

But he also pointed out that most of the health studies about air pollution in general are based on long-term averages, and as a result we have a better idea of the long-term effects of air pollution. Researchers are less confident of the short-term effects.

“So if there’s a wildfire one day and it goes up to 150 even for a day,” Smith said, referring to the air quality index, a 500-point scale used by researchers to measure pollution levels, “it doesn’t affect the long-term average very much. But we could certainly feel it in the lungs and see it in the air. It must have some effects that we don’t know yet.”

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