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Rep. Mike Thompson co-authors bill to study wildfire smoke impacts

A bill authorizing $20 million to study the human-health impact of wildfire smoke and to research ways to mitigate its effects has been introduced by North Bay U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson and South Bay Rep. Anna Eshoo.

The Smoke Planning and Research Act is a response to the increasing frequency and intensity of Western wildfires that have left communities bathed in dense, noxious smoke for days or weeks on end in recent years.

“Sadly, fire season in our district and our state has gotten more and more serious each year,” Thompson, D-St. Helena, said in a news release. “It’s important we understand the impact of wildfire smoke on our communities and develop a plan for future fires.”

The bill directs the Environmental Protection Agency to study the public health impacts of wildfire smoke and effective responses, authorizing $20 million in research funding.

It also would establish four Centers of Excellence at institutions of higher learning to ensure the research is responsive to the real-life challenges of people on the ground.

In addition, it would create a grant program to help communities plan and respond to smoke — by ensuring schools have necessary filtration systems, for instance, or creating shelters for populations at critical risk, Thompson said.

A similar version of the bill was approved by the House of Representatives last fall, but it was waylaid in the Senate.

The bill comes amid a flurry of studies on the effects of wildfire smoke in the age of catastrophic blazes that have blackened millions of acres of California and sent residual smoke plumes thousands of miles cross-country. Today’s megafires raze whole communities, releasing toxic substances from building materials, furnishings, cleaning products, machinery, electronics and other hazardous materials.

Researchers and health professionals have documented increased respiratory, vascular and cardiac illness among those exposed to wildfire smoke, particularly during protracted firefights and wildfire sieges.

Studies of wildfire smoke also have revealed disturbing findings about the contents of smoke from fires in developed areas. Those studies built on earlier research that focused on structure fires and how they affected urban and suburban firefighters, who remain at high risk for cancer.

A study released earlier this month by the California Air Resources Board considered data collected from four air quality monitoring stations during the November 2018 Camp fire.

It found significant distinctions between the smoke the Camp fire produced when compared with three larger fires that burned that same summer but destroyed far fewer structures. The other fires studied were the Carr fire near Redding, the Mendocino Complex fires in Mendocino and Lake counties, and the Ferguson fire in Mariposa County, near Yosemite.

The study found elevated concentrations of zinc and lead, as well as calcium, iron and manganese in the smoke produced by the Camp fire.

A daylong spike in lead concentrations was particularly prominent in nearby Chico, though elevated levels were observed up to 200 miles away in San Jose, as well as in Modesto and the Sacramento area.

Particulate matter was also elevated across throughout a wide swath of Northern California, including Sebastopol, Ukiah and Lakeport. The tiny particles of smoke can be inhaled into the deepest recesses of the lungs, entering the blood stream and impairing vital organs.

“This report makes it clear that wildfire smoke poses a real health threat not only to people living and working near these fires, but to anyone affected by the smoke as it travels across California and beyond,” CARB Executive Officer Richard Corey said in a statement. “After an extremely dry winter, California is facing the potential for another severe wildfire season in 2021. So it’s more important than ever that we all take action to protect ourselves — and our loved ones — from smoke.”

A related study released last spring by researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego found that the fine particulate matter in wildfire smoke can be up to 10 times more harmful to respiratory health than particles of the same size from other sources, such as car exhaust.

The research was based on a review of 14 years worth of Southern California hospital admission data and found children and elderly people are particularly vulnerable to toxic effects.

Scripps Research Economist Tom Corringham, a co-author of the study, said Friday that the composition of wildfire smoke as more communities burn likely explains most of the findings, but longer exposure due to larger, more enduring fires also is likely a factor.

“It’s just amazing how much faster things have gotten worse than we expected 20 years ago,” he said, noting that environmental regulations have reduced tailpipe emissions and industrial pollution only to have wildfires wreak havoc on the air instead.

In terms of public policy, Corringham said continued monitoring and data collection was critical. He also cited education about things like air quality apps, staying indoors in sealed spaces when it’s smokey outside, air filters and portable filtration systems, and subsidies for efficient respirator masks.

Eshoo, whose 18th district takes in the coastal area north of Santa Cruz, where the CZU Lightning Complex fires burned for weeks last August and September, said her constituents “endured the worst air quality in the world’ for days last year.

“As climate change makes wildfires more frequent, poor air quality will remain a persistent public health concern in the Bay Area,” she said. “Our legislation directs the EPA to study the public health impacts of wildfire smoke and provide resources to local governments to mitigate these risks. The communities devastated by wildfires deserve our help to rebuild and better protect the health of their residents during future disasters.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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