Health risks of toxic ash feared in wake of Sonoma County fires

Determining the health risks for people who live near burned home sites is tricky, in part because good data is hard to come by.|

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Kristen Ortlinghaus has a question she can't seem to get answered about the air quality in her Coffey Park neighborhood.

She wants to know if she and her four children are being exposed to dangerous toxins by living just a few doors down from the wasteland left behind by the most destructive wildfire in California history.

“I don't know what's in the air,” Ortlinghaus said, who likened the smell in her neighborhood after a recent rain to being punched in the face. “Should we be freaking out and running for our lives?”

When she first asked that question at the Local Assistance Center in downtown Santa Rosa, Ortlinghaus “got the major runaround” from representatives of the state Office of Emergency Services and Sonoma County Health Department.

“They all looked at each other and said, ‘It's not us. We have no idea,'” Ortlinghaus recalled.

They eventually suggested she call the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which is responsible for removing household toxics before major cleanup operations begin. She got no answers there either, she said.

“So I don't let my kids play outside because honestly I don't have enough data to know if it's safe,” Ortlinghaus said.

Since then, thanks to persistence, access to data from new air quality monitors around the city, and staying connected with other concerned neighbors, Ortlinghaus says she's feeling a little better about the flow of information.

But with major debris removal operations getting underway, she feels it is more important than ever that public officials be transparent about air quality data so residents near burned-out areas can make up their own minds about the health risks they face.

“The information is just really not being shared in any reasonable way to make decisions on,” she said.

Although the air has cleared since the North Bay fires filled the skies with smoke, creating the dirtiest air ever recorded in the region, concerns remain about the health effects of the toxic ash left behind by the 7,000 structures incinerated by the Tubbs and Nuns fires.

Fears about the potential dangers to human health caused the county to declare a public health emergency in the aftermath of the fires, which killed 23 people. But determining the health risks for people who live near incinerated home sites is tricky business, in part because good data is hard to come by.

“It's a hazard, but quantifying it is really tough,” said Karen Holbrook, deputy health officer at the Sonoma County Department of Health Services.

Part of the problem is that responsibility for gathering air quality data is split among the various federal, state and local agencies involved in the fire response and cleanup effort.

For example, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District monitors air quality in the southern half of Sonoma County, but it does so from a single monitor in Sebastopol, which was not directly affected by the fires.

The California Air Resources Board placed seven additional monitors in Sonoma County shortly after the fires, and last week installed four others at area schools: Schaefer Elementary, Hidden Valley Elementary, Rincon Valley Middle School, and a location on Yulupa Avenue near Matanzas Elementary.

Those monitors have been testing for fine particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns. Such fine particles are a concern for public health because they can lodge deep in the lung tissues.

Over the past week, monitors at Schaefer, Hidden Valley and Matanzas elementary schools have shown good air quality, with the air quality index (AQI) readings all under 50, meaning air pollution poses little or no risk.

The fourth site, at Rincon Valley Middle School, appeared to show unhealthy levels for two days last week, but those readings are not considered accurate, said Melanie Turner, spokeswoman for the Air Resources Board. The monitor was replaced Thursday but its data was still fluctuating dramatically, leading air quality technicians to speculate the device may be too close to a ventilation duct, she said.

While the region's air quality has improved dramatically from the lows during the fires, health officials acknowledge that monitoring devices offer only limited data. They do not, for example, detect some toxins - like heavy metals and asbestos - that Ortlinghaus and other residents are concerned about.

The city was forced to shut down public access to Journey's End Mobile Home Park in Santa Rosa last weekend after the Environmental Protection Agency identified potentially asbestos-laden material in the burned-out neighborhood.

The EPA has been conducting air testing as part of the Household Hazardous Waste Program, but it's for worker safety, not community safety, explained Steve Calanog, an EPA incident commander.

Crews wearing white protective suits have equipment to detect volatile gases like propane and benzene, and household chemicals. They also carry equipment that can detect radiation and heavy metals, like mercury, both of which can sometimes be present when medical equipment is incinerated, Calanog said.

Crews have cleared 64 percent of the 6,920 parcels affected by the fires in Sonoma County, and to date “we're not seeing anything out of the ordinary,” Calanog said.

He could not provide specifics, however. The data gathered by those teams is not public because it is “to protect workers from short-term, acute, occupational exposures to health threats from volatile organic compounds and particulates,” EPA spokeswoman Margot Perez-Sullivan wrote in an email. She directed further questions to local air districts and health departments.

Local health officials are working hard to get additional data that will be useful to residents, said county health department spokesman Scott Alonso.

“These are important questions,” Alonso said. “We want to be transparent and we want to give the best information possible because people need to have information to make the best decisions.”

Local public health officials say they are doing their best to give sound guidance to keep residents safe. These include warnings to wear respirator masks and gloves when sifting through potentially toxic debris, not using leaf blowers to clean up ash, and requiring contractors to use best practices for dust management, such as spraying down debris with water during cleanup operations.

The department is well aware that many people are anxious about the health risks of the cleanup, and could decide to leave during the process if they can't get clear answers to health questions, Alonso said.

Holbrook is working with Army Corps, EPA and air quality officials to get useful information to people, but it's an “ongoing process,” Alonso said.

“We need good data and we want to make that information available to the public,” Alonso said. “At the end of the day, we want folks to make sure they can live in a safe and clean environment.”

Ortlinghaus stressed that she knows her troubles pale in comparison to those of her neighbors who lost their homes. But she feels obligated to press for answers to questions that affect the health of her kids.

“It seems to me the cleanup will impact air quality, but how are we going to know?” she said.

Check The Air Quality Where You Live

AirNow: Maintained by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

AirFire: Maintained by the U.S. Forest Service


Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

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