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Calif. wildfire smoke spews dangerous toxins

Officials said more concerning than the obvious signs of pollution are the microscopic particles are easily inhaled and can make their way deep into the lungs


By Erin Allday
San Francisco Chronicle

NAPA, Calif. — The air quality in much of the Bay Area this week has at times been comparable to — or even worse than —Beijing, one of the most notoriously polluted cities in the world, as smoke from the Wine Country wildfires drifts south and settles over the region.

Smoke-choked residents wore masks while biking or walking to work, and even on BART trains and inside offices. Schools kept restless students indoors all day, or canceled classes altogether. A hundred miles from the fires, people showed up in emergency rooms saying they were having trouble breathing.

The brown-hued sunlight, ash falling like snow, and a persistent campfire smell are the obvious signs of heavy pollution. But more concerning are the invisible, noxious particulates carried in the smoke. These microscopic particles are easily inhaled and can make their way deep into the lungs, causing damage to the delicate tissue.

The poor air quality prompted widespread public health advisories, especially directed at people who already have respiratory problems like asthma or emphysema and who can have serious complications from inhaling smoke. People with heart conditions may also be at increased risk of heart attack or stroke from exposure to particulates.

But otherwise healthy people also can suffer. Smoke pollutants can cause eye, nose and throat irritation. If people spend too much time outside, they may start coughing, or develop a headache or overall fatigue.

“This is definitely impacting everybody,” said Dr. Thomas Dailey, medical director of pulmonary medicine at Kaiser Santa Clara. “Patients with emphysema and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and asthma are having shortness of breath or other exacerbations. Even patients who don’t have underlying lung conditions are reporting that their chests feel tight and they’re coughing more.”

Hospitals around the Bay Area have reported upticks in people with symptoms like breathing difficulty, severe coughing or tightness in their chest. Solano County alone reported that 23 people sickened by the pollution had been treated in emergency rooms. Dozens of schools around the region have canceled classes for the remainder of the week.

Outdoor exercise is especially ill-advised. When people work out, they breathe faster and usually through their mouth instead of their nose, all of which increases the amount of pollutants they inhale. Many school athletic programs have canceled or postponed games. This weekend, at least four major running events were canceled due to smoke, including a half marathon in San Francisco and a 31-mile ultramarathon in Muir Beach.

Bay Area stores that sell air purifiers and face masks that block pollutants have been overrun. Many places in the North Bay have been sold out of masks for days, though supplies have been donated to many evacuation centers. Cole Hardware in San Francisco sold out of air purifiers about 20 minutes after getting a new shipment Thursday morning, customers said.

The worst conditions have been in the North Bay areas consumed by smoke. But by Thursday afternoon, as 21 blazes raged statewide, air quality in the East Bay, San Francisco and other pockets around the region was also terrible, rivaling a typical afternoon in Beijing, according to Richard Muller, a UC Berkeley physics professor who created a map that compares air-quality levels around the world.

The air-quality index, a number that takes into account several types of pollutants, was hovering around 160 for the Bay Area most of Thursday. A healthy level is 50 or lower, which is typical for the area; the worst level is 500. The air is expected to remain unhealthy for at least the next two days, according to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

Public health and air-quality experts advised people to stay inside with doors and windows closed when possible. Those with pre-existing respiratory and heart conditions should wear masks that block small particles when outside.

Sherry Katz of Berkeley, who teaches history at San Francisco State University, has asthma that in the past has been exacerbated by smoky conditions. She’s avoided complications this week, she said, largely because she’s been taking pains to keep out of the smoke.

To avoid going outside, she worked from home several days, until she had to go into the city Thursday to teach. When she smelled smoke in her classroom, she switched to a different building with better air circulation. And she wore a mask all day, even while in front of the class.

“I know smoke is a trigger for my asthma,” Katz said. “It’s a scary feeling when you can’t breathe very well.”

Katz’s husband, Dr. John Balmes, studies the health effects of air pollutants at the Human Exposure Laboratory at UCSF and has special expertise in wildland fire smoke. He’s studied pollution in Beijing too, and the Bay Area’s air this week has reminded him of China’s dirty, dusty skies.

Several days or even a week of smoke exposure probably isn’t going to cause chronic health problems in otherwise healthy people, Balmes said. And even people who have heart or lung problems already are unlikely to suffer lasting damage from the pollution.

Still, inhaling small particles is never good.

“The public health message is: ‘You shouldn’t be out there,’” Balmes said. “Why expose yourself to a toxin if you don’t need to?”

To protect yourself

Stay inside with doors and windows closed. Do not use air conditioners or heaters that bring in air from the outside.

If you are not home, seek out public spaces like libraries, movie theaters or shopping malls that use recirculated air. Call ahead to make sure they have air filters.

In San Francisco, these libraries have air filters and are open on Friday during the following hours:

San Francisco Main Library, 100 Larkin St., noon to 6 p.m.

Chinatown Branch Library, 1135 Powell St., 1 to 6 p.m.

Mission Bay Branch Library, 960 Fourth St., 1 to 6 p.m.

Glen Park Branch Library, 2825 Diamond St., 1 to 6 p.m.

If you are outside, limit exertion.

Wear a mask that keeps out small particles. N95 masks are the most common and can be purchased at hardware stores, pharmacies or stores like Walmart.

Seek medical attention if you have difficulty breathing, wheezing, chest pain, nausea or dizziness that is not resolved by going inside or getting away from smoke.

Dangers of smoke exposure

For people with pre-existing respiratory conditions, smoke inhalation can cause a flareup of symptoms that may not respond well to normal medication and other therapy.

Otherwise healthy people can suffer eye, nose and throat irritation, or develop a cough, headache or overall fatigue.

Children may be especially at risk because their lungs are still developing.

Copyright 2017 San Francisco Chronicle

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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