Wildfire Smoke’s Toll: A fact of life … and sometimes death

Wildfire Smoke’s Toll: A fact of life … and sometimes death

15 September 2009

published by www.sanluisobispo.com

USA — Every summer, smoke from wildfires is a fact of life for residents of San Luis Obispo County.

Even if the county has not experienced a large wildfire of its own, smoke from fires in neighboring counties frequently blows into the region.

Smoky conditions pose a variety of health risks and can even be fatal to the elderly or those with heart or lung disease.

At a panel discussion held Tuesday in San Luis Obispo, several of the state’s top air pollution experts discussed the health effects of smoky conditions, how smoke is monitored and some of the steps people can take to protect themselves.

Smoke pollution comes primarily in the form that scientists call particulate matter, airborne particles small enough to be inhaled deeply into the lungs, said Melanie Marty, chief of air toxicology and epidemiology at the state EPA’s Office of Environmental Health Assessment.

The largest particle that can be breathed into the lungs is about one sixth the diameter of a human hair. Wildfires often produce particles that are much smaller, Marty said.

Multiple studies have shown a clear link between high particulate levels and increased mortality levels. Health problems particulates cause include decreased lung capacity, asthma, chronic bronchitis, irregular heartbeat and heart attacks.

An estimated 14,000 to 24,000 people in the state die each year as a result of particulate matter, Marty said. These deaths occur primarily in highly populated areas with poor air quality such as the Los Angeles area, the San Joaquin Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area.

“The risk of dying goes up with the levels of particulate matter,” she said.

Particulate matter also comes from a variety of sources other than smoke. Road dust, engine emissions and windblown sand are a few other sources. The Nipomo Mesa consistently has some of the highest particulate levels from sand blowing off the Guadalupe/Nipomo Dunes.

The county Air Pollution Control District maintains permanent air-monitoring stations in San Luis Obispo, Atascadero, Morro Bay and Nipomo.

Several monitoring stations are also maintained on the Nipomo Mesa as well as one in the isolated Red Hills area east of Paso Robles to monitor wildfire smoke.

The district is finishing up a study that will pinpoint the source of the high particulate levels on the Mesa. That study will be released by the end of the year and will be the subject of several public hearings, said Larry Allen, county air pollution control officer.

The problem of wildfire smoke in the county is not likely to get better anytime soon, Allen said. The state is in the midst of a multiyear drought, and dry conditions increase the likelihood and intensity of fires.

Also, more and more wildfires of late have been attributed to arson. The deadly Station Fire burning above Los Angeles has been ruled arson.

Smoke Precautions

Take these steps to protect yourself from particulate pollution:

• Be aware of air quality. Take precautions if you see or smell smoke in the air. “If you can see the air, it’s not good for you,” said Tracy Thatcher, a civil engineering professor at Cal Poly who specializes in air pollution monitoring.

• Healthy people should limit their outdoor activity during smoky conditions. Children, the elderly, people with heart disease and asthma should eliminate it altogether.

• Reduce indoor particulate sources by eliminating tobacco smoke, and limiting the use of candles, wood-burning stoves and fireplaces.

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