California wildfire smoke becomes health hazard as cities become world’s most polluted

Smoke masks. Eye drops. No outdoor exercise. That is how Californians have been trying to cope with smoke from wildfires choking the state, but experts say an increase in serious health problems may be almost inevitable for vulnerable residents as the disasters become more commonplace. According to Berkeley Earth, a non-profit organisation that monitors air quality, California — which has just experienced its deadliest wildfire in its history — now has the most polluted cities in the world. Oakland, in northern California, was reported to have the worst air quality in the world on Saturday morning (local time). And San Francisco, Stockton and Sacramento were the world’s three “most polluted cities” on Friday morning, according to CNN. On Friday most schools in those cities were forced to close. Student Mason West said he could see the particles in the air. “It’s kind of freaky to see your whole town wearing air masks and trying to get out of smoke,” he said. “You can see the particles. Obviously, it’s probably not good to be breathing that stuff in.” The smoke from the fire that decimated the Northern California city of Paradise darkened the skies in San Francisco, nearly 321 kilometres south-west this week. Michael Northover, a contractor in the city, said the air smelled “like you were camping”. He and his 14-year-old son have contracted sinus infections for the first time, and Mr Northover blamed it on the smoke. “We’re all kind of feeling it,” Mr Northover said. The demand for particle masks skyrocketed in California as the wildfire smoke led to an alarming increase in air pollution. In response to the crisis, California-based Kelly-Moore Paint Company distributed free particle masks in its local stores until they ran out. “We tried to provide a little relief by giving out all the masks we had available to those that needed them for free, ” the company said on its website. “The response has been overwhelming and we have exhausted our supply of particle masks.”

Breathing in all that smoke

For most healthy people, exposure to wildfire smoke is just an annoyance, causing burning eyes, scratchy throats or chest discomfort that all disappear when the smoke clears. But doctors, scientists and public health officials are concerned the changing face of wildfires in California is posing a much broader health hazard. “Wildfire season used to be June to late September. Now it seems to be happening all year round. We need to be adapting to that,” Wayne Cascio, a US Environmental Protection Agency cardiologist, said this week. Dr Cascio wrote earlier this year that a growing frequency of large wildland fires, urban expansion into wooded areas and an aging population were combining to increase the number of people at risk of health problems from fires. Wood smoke contains some of the same toxic chemicals as urban air pollution, along with tiny particles of vapor and soot 30 times thinner than a human hair, called particulate matter 2.5. Studies have linked heart attacks and cancer with long-term exposure to air pollution, but the long-term effects of wildfires on health has been understudied. “Very little is known about the long-term effects of wildfire smoke because it’s hard to study populations years after a wildfire,” John Balmes, a University of California professor of medicine who studies air pollution, said. Dr Balmes noted increased lung cancer rates had been found in women in developing countries who spend every day cooking over wood fires. That kind of extreme exposure does not typically happen with wildfires, but experts worry about the kinds of health damage that may emerge for firefighters and residents where these blazes are occurring often.

ABC News, 19 November 2018 ;