California wildfires are a public health risk
Tuesday, October 17, 2017
Beijing, China, is the greatest greenhouse gas emitter in the world, exacerbated by its growing power and steel industries. The resulting air pollution is so intense that it is routine for residents to check the air quality index when they awake in the morning, and plan whether they will don masks that day.
"Airpocalypse" and "Airmageddon" are common phrases for these conditions. This a condition that is best to stay the exception than the rule. As one estimate calculates, around 1.2 million premature deaths are linked to China's abysmal air quality.
As 100-mile-wide blazes have engulfed Northern California countryside, neighborhoods, vineyards and around 5,700 structures overall, we clamor to wrap our minds around this latest wildfire catastrophe. One aspect that may take years to examine is how the smoke from these fires affects the long-term health of residents.
Of historic proportions, these fires will be remembered for how rapidly they spread — goaded onward by the Diablo winds — and the large-scale damage they caused. The death count has risen to at least 41, more than 75,000 people have been evacuated, and $3 billion in damages has been reported in Sonoma County alone.
There is still no available sure-proof light at the end of this burning tunnel, except some upcoming Thursday rain predicted by the National Weather Service. Also, recent reports suggest mild optimism as Sunday's diminished winds allowed firefighters to gain precious ground.
While wildfire imagery can communicate the serious human toll, leaving a lasting visual imprint, there is a less clearly visible danger for North and South Bay Area residents: air quality.
Let's first consider people closest to the fire outbreak zones. Do you see all the photos of burned up vehicles, homes, plastics and other structures? Well, it's not just the loss of property we should be grieving in these instances. Our ability to breath clean air poses a serious public health threat that could have lasting consequences for certain at-risk populations.
According to a 2008 study of the Southern California fires of 2007, which burned 350,000 acres, destroying 200 vehicles and 2,200 structures, air quality becomes significantly compromised by toxic heavy metal traces.
These metals include cadmium, copper, arsenic and lead. Other toxic substances like pesticides and herbicides, asbestos, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) can also circulate during and after mass fire events. There is a longer-term link between cancer and these substances, but not many studies have tackled this research topic.
Of course, the most immediate at-risk populations for toxic fumes are children, elderly and those already suffering from ailments as widespread as asthma and cardiovascular conditions. But be warned: Healthy people can experience dizziness, loss of breath, nosebleeds, coughing and other symptoms due to toxic air exposure.
Recent estimates suggest that 4 to 5 million Bay Area residents have been breathing in record-breaking, Beijing-on-its-worst-days, toxic outdoor air. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District states that Beijing's worst pollution days can reach 500 on the index, which is "the kind of readings we've been seeing here."
The Bay Area Air Quality Management District website continues its "Spare the Air" warning for a second week — especially for Napa, Sonoma and Solano counties. Residents are advised to stay indoors and seek indoor facilities with well-filtered central air, like shopping malls and public libraries. All residents are also asked to avoid exercise and outdoor time; pollution-inducing activities such as driving, wood burning, lawn mowing and leaf blowing; and even barbecuing are heavily discouraged. Every little bit helps, right?
Especially for those in the immediate line of fire-impacted areas, it is recommended to wear N95 masks to avoid breathing in toxic particles.
For people in the San Francisco Bay Area, there has been a "fog to smog" transition as ambient particle (a mixture of liquid and solid chemical and toxin-based air droplets) pollution becomes a growing public health concern. 70 miles south of the wildfire epicenter, as reported in an Oct. 16 New York Times article, N95 masks are sold out. People are having masks sent by overnight mail, and rallying together to figure out how to endure this airborne public health issue.
In the already health-conscious South Bay Area, people are leaving no stone unturned in the quest to minimize exposure to toxic particles: "The library at San Francisco's Civic Center is unusually packed with hipsters ... My husband reminds me not to turn on the air conditioner or central fan in our house because it will bring in smoke from outside."
Windows are pressed down, outdoor exercise plans are canceled, and this information-obsessed locale exchanges survival tips as the future of Bay Area air quality remains uncertain. Meanwhile, up north, the fires burn on.
These are surely challenging times, as we look to China for air pollution survival tips on what to do and, more daunting, when to leave. That possible later week rainfall can't come soon enough, can it?
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