Air Quality Plummets as Wildfires Rage, Putting Public Health at Risk

Health experts warn of the effects of the fine-particulate pollution generated by wildfires, which are worsening in part due to climate change.

The deadly blazes that erupted over the weekend in northern California have shrouded the San Francisco Bay Area in a choking haze rather than its famous fog.

More than 80,000 acres of wildland were burning in three large fires that ravaged the wine country north of the city, leaving more than a dozen people reported dead. And the smoke from those blazes sent pollution levels rising into the extra-chunky range across the region.

“It hurts deep in my chest,” San Francisco resident Christine Renee Dye told Seeker. “Every time I breathe in, there’s pain.” Dye suffers from asthma, and said she had to lay down for a while Tuesday afternoon, inhaler in hand.

“My home has old windows that leak,” she said. “The cold always comes in, and now I can’t keep the smoke out.”

Fine-particle pollution readings in San Francisco and Oakland soared above 150 micrograms per liter — more than four times the limit recommended by federal regulators — and rose well into the 200s in the counties north of San Francisco Bay. Those particles are the biggest hazard in the smoke, said Kristine Roselius, communications manager for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

“It can trigger asthma attacks, it can exacerbate existing respiratory conditions, and it’s really harmful for children, the elderly, and those with respiratory conditions,” Roselius said. San Francisco has opened up several libraries with filtered air for people who need a break, and urged others to take precautions against the smoke. Several schools have canceled classes or sports practices while the smoke lingers, Roselius said.

“It’s just not a good time to be outdoors right now,” she said.

Particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers, known as PM2.5, are just one of many other pollutants in the smoke, the American Lung Association’s Janice Nolen told Seeker. It’s also full of carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and sometimes formaldehyde, which is often used in making plywood, said Nolen, the association’s vice president for national policy.

But PM.25 is “the most lethal” component. Research has linked it with higher risks of premature death, worsening conditions like COPD, and raising the risk of heart attacks.

“These are very, very profound impacts of these wildfires and the smoke that they’re breathing,” Nolen said. The smoke can drift long distances and affect people far away from the fires. Scientists from the Environmental Protection Agency have estimated between 1,500 and 2,500 people a year die as a result.

“If you can see it in the air, it’s bad,” Nolen said. And most hardware-store masks don’t help: Experts recommend a heavy-duty mask known as an N-95. But even more sophisticated masks aren’t much help, she said — “Avoiding it is the best way.”

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Fueled by dry conditions and high winds, the blazes erupted over the weekend, driving many from homes in the wine country north of San Francisco. Todd Pettigrew and his wife Sherri had just arrived to visit a friend in Santa Rosa, about 50 miles from the city, on Sunday night when they were awakened by a commotion outside: They’d seen the glow on the ridges outside of town, but weren’t expecting it to be at their doorstep overnight.

“It was like you were standing right in the middle of a smoke of a campfire,” Pettigrew said. “At one point, I put a towel over my mouth just to be able to breathe a little bit better.” With ash and half-inch cinders falling around them, they and their friend hurriedly shoved things into their car and took off for Oakland, rerouted by yet another fire on the way.

But these are just the latest in a particularly rough fire season across the West. In places like Idaho and Montana, “They had months-worth of days like this,” Nolen said. In Montana, the state Lung Association chapter helped get air cleaners to schools to protect growing children, who are particularly susceptible to the smoke, she said. And the number of major fires is growing, driven in part by climate change.

“You have areas that are drier and more likely to catch on fire and have greater risk of developing these wildfires,” she said.

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