The Atlas and Tubbs wildfires sweeping through Napa and Sonoma counties since October 8th have caused unimaginable destruction — hundreds of thousands of acres reduced to ash, 100,000 residents displaced, at least 41 known deaths, and dozens still missing, according to The Los Angeles Times.
But the wildfires’ blazes may only be the beginning of what the people of Northern California will have to endure, as the smoke from the wildfires drastically reduces the air quality in the area, spreading soot, toxic gasses like carbon monoxide, and tiny particles that can penetrate the lungs and heart.
This air pollution released by the wildfires could have lasting health consequences for residents, especially for the elderly, infants, and those with asthma and pulmonary disease.
Record Breaking Pollution Released by the California Wildfires
Firefighters are still in the process of fighting the flames, so we won’t know the full ramifications of the wildfires until they have fully died down. But the level of pollution caused by the wildfires’ smoke is already record breaking.
The wildfires that blazed through Northern California have already emitted a year’s worth of car pollution in less than single week, according to Sean Raffuse, air-quality analyst from the Crocker nuclear laboratory at the University of California, Davis.
If that’s not a strong enough example, consider this: Beijing has long been held as an example of what our country’s major cities could look like if air pollution emissions are not kept in check. This week, the air quality in San Francisco rivaled Beijing in terms of smog, all as a direct result of the wildfires.
San Francisco’s concentration of dangerous particulate matter hit 163 on the Air Quality Index (AQI) this week, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, nearly matching Beijing’s infamous pollution level of 165. For comparison, the federal safe standard is 35, according to Professor John Balmes of UC San Francisco.
San Francisco’s Air Quality Is Harmful For Everyone
The level of pollution seen in San Francisco this week isn’t just harmful for sensitive groups, such as people with respiratory issues. On the AQI, the range between 151 to 200 — labeled an alarming red — is considered unhealthy for all people, according to the EPA.
“Everyone may begin to experience some adverse health effects, and members of the sensitive groups may experience more serious effects,” says the EPA regarding this unhealthy level of air particulate matter.
Image from EPA
The quality of air in San Francisco may not clear up anytime soon, either, according to Slate. Urban areas, which their concrete roads, steel buildings, and many alleyways, tend to trap smoke, says Jia Coco Liu, an environmental health researcher at Johns Hopkins interviewed by Slate.
Liu’s research, which will be published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, found that cities — even those that are far away from wildfires — have much higher levels of particulate matter from wildfires in the air than rural areas. This pollution may be linked to an increase in respiratory health complaints and other health concerns.
Symptoms of Wildfire Smoke Inhalation
Anyone who is exposed to wildfire smoke can experience symptoms such as:
Itchy, burning eyes
Those with pre-existing lung or heart conditions could experience even more severe symptoms, such as:
Shortness of breath
Long-Term Health Impacts of Wildfire Smoke
The full health impacts of wildfire smoke are not clearly known, as it is difficult for researchers to differentiate wildfire smoke pollution from other sources of emissions, such as vehicle and factories.
In recent years, researchers have begun looking into what exact compounds we’re breathing in during wildfires. As the agricultural industry uses more and more chemicals like pesticides and fire retardants to treat farmlands and forests, the question of what happens to these chemicals when they burn and are released into the air has grown in importance.
“When forests and farmlands catch fire, the chemicals applied to them burn, too, and potentially travel much longer distances than where they were first used,” said Sarah Carratt, a pharmacology and toxicology graduate student at UC Davis and author of a review that recommends increased studies into the compounds found in wildfire smoke.
The review, titled “Pesticides, wildfire suppression chemicals, and California wildfires: A human health perspective,” states that although researchers know that wildfire smoke is more toxic than other smoke, no studies into wildfires have identified what exactly makes it so toxic.
“It’s possible that what distinguishes it are the chemicals humans add to the environment, but researchers haven’t paid enough attention to this yet,” said Jerold Last, professor of pulmonary, critical care and sleep medicine at UC Davis Health and senior author of the review.
All Smoke is Dangerous
While more research into wildfire smoke and its health implications is needed, it is widely agreed upon by medical researchers that breathing in any smoke can increase your chance of heart disease, lung disease, and stroke.
Air pollution in general is associated with an increased risk of respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, and adverse pregnancy outcomes, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Science. A 2016 study even found a potential link between air pollution and type 2 diabetes incidence.
Smoke can also exacerbate existing conditions for certain at-risk groups, according to the EPA. People most at-risk during wildfires include:
People with heart and lung disease (such as asthma or ischemic heart disease)
People with diabetes
How to Protect Yourself and Your Family From Wildfire Smoke
While the wildfires continue to ravage Napa and Sonoma counties, it’s important to protect yourself and your family from smoke inhalation as much as possible.
Take the following steps, as recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to safe stay and minimize your exposure to toxic wildfire smoke:
Stay indoors with the windows and doors closed.
If it is hot, run the air conditioner instead of opening windows. Be sure to run your air conditioner with the fresh-air intake closed and a clean filter to prevent smoke from getting indoors.
While indoors, keep your air free of additional pollution by not burning candles, turning on your fireplace or gas stove, or smoking.
If you have a pre-existing lung disease or heart disease, follow your doctor’s instructions and keep a supply of medication on hand. Call your doctor if you experience symptoms.
If you need to go outside during low air quality forecasts, use the right mask. Dust masks and surgical masks will not protect your lungs from tiny harmful particles found in wildfire smoke. Instead, use a particulate mask, also known as N-95 or P-100 respirators.
Most importantly, follow local news to learn if you are in the path of a wildfire, advises the CDC. Be prepared to evacuate if officials predict that your home is in the path of the wildfire. Use designated evacuation routes to reach your nearest shelter.