Wildfires in California pose crisis for human health and air quality, experts say

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The peril that California’s new era of catastrophic wildfires poses to people and the air we breathe is so great it amounts to a public health crisis, defying even the federal index long used to measure air pollution, leading scientists and regulators said Wednesday in Santa Rosa.

Officials once thought the North Bay wildfires of 2017, which took 40 lives and leveled nearly 6,200 homes, were “an anomaly,” Jack Broadbent, head of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, said. Broadbent included the comment in his opening remarks at the two-day conference that focused on fire-related health and air quality impacts.

“Now we understand ... this is the new normal,” he said, repeating the phrase former Gov. Jerry Brown used last August, months before the Camp fire in Butte County set a new benchmark for the state, becoming the worst inferno on record.

Altogether in the past two years, California wildfires have killed 146 people, destroyed nearly 24,000 homes and scorched more than 3 million acres, according to Cal Fire, the state firefighting agency.

The disasters fueled by a warming planet have confronted health researchers and environmental regulators with a new set of challenges. They include how to measure air quality that has been so poor at times during recent fire seasons that pollution levels were off the chart of the federal government’s longstanding index.

The index is an average of long-term pollution measurements that can mask one-hour spikes of much fouler air. John Balmes, a professor at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health, said the index is “not designed for wildfire smoke.”

Smoke from the deadly Camp fire last November impacted 8 million people in 20 counties, Broadbent said.

At that time, as the dark pall descended over Sonoma County, schools closed and droves of people put on the ubiquitous N95 respirator masks. But even their efficacy was up for debate Wednesday.

Balmes said the masks are “actually very effective if they fit properly.” But they don’t fit children, whose faces are small, nor adequately protect men like him with beards.

Masks may be helpful for people with heart and lung conditions that make them vulnerable to smoke, he said, but he questioned if they should be recommended for the public at large.

Emblematic of the uncertainty, Sacramento firefighters were handing out thousands of N95 masks in November when county health officials recommended against their use.

Dr. Olivia Kasirye, Sacramento County’s public health officer and a conference panelist, said the masks impede breathing and could pose problems for some people.

Kasirye draw a laugh from the audience of about 140 people by relating the anecdote of a call to her office requesting “a box of masks so the staff could go out and smoke.”

“I do believe there is a role for masks, but we need to define that role,” she said. “They should not be our first defense.”

Experts reiterated their advice to stay indoors as much as possible when skies are smoky, avoiding outdoor exercise and putting a portable air cleaner in the bedroom, where people spend most of their time.

Wildfire smoke is a formidable health threat that Balmes said is “pretty much like cigarette smoke, minus the nicotine.”

But when buildings and vehicles burn, contaminants like phosgene, toluene, styrene and dioxins go up in smoke.

Wildfires also generate nanoparticles, which Kleinman described as “the ideal size for deep lung penetration” down to the part of that organ “that is keeping you alive.”

Nanoparticles are not accounted for in the federal Air Quality Index, he said, calling that “something that really should be considered.”

The index scores air quality from zero to 500, divided into six ratings from “good” to “hazardous.”

While Butte County’s Camp fire was burning in November, much of the Bay Area registered the worst air quality in the world. Sonoma County was blanketed with air rated as “unhealthy” and “very unhealthy,” meaning all residents were exposed to potentially serious health effects.

Air purifiers and breathing masks were sold out or in short supply at stores across the county.

Eric Sergienko, Mariposa County’s health officer, summed up Wednesday morning’s presentations by saying “there are still a lot of unknowns.”

Every scientist noted there was ample wildfire data up to 2015, he said, adding that California’s wildfire experience “got bad after that.”

Researchers have sought to mount a response. At UC Davis, they are working to identify wildfire pollutants by analyzing ash collected in the wake of North Bay fires and air collected during the Tubbs fire in Santa Rosa.

Another study involves collection of blood and tissue samples from mothers and babies involved in pregnancies during the North Bay wildfires in an effort to determine the effect of smoke on the infants.

“It’s a big issue we’re going to be facing for decades to come,” Irva Hertz- Picciotto, an epidemiologist who heads the Environmental Health Sciences Center at UC Davis, said in October.

“Breathing more smoke as life goes on. It’s going to affect everything.”

The conference at the Hyatt Regency Sonoma Wine Country was organized by the Air & Waste Management Association, a nonprofit organization for environmental professionals.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.

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