Smoke from fires may have killed more than 1,000 peo­ple

Marysville Appeal-Democrat - - State / Weather - The Mer­cury News (TNS)

SAN JOSE – The heavy smoke from wild­fires that choked much of Cal­i­for­nia in re­cent weeks was more than an in­con­ve­nience.

It was deadly. And it al­most cer­tainly killed more peo­ple than the flames from the mas­sive fires them­selves, health ex­perts say.

Be­tween Aug. 1 and Sept. 10, the his­tor­i­cally bad con­cen­tra­tions of wild­fire smoke were re­spon­si­ble for at least 1,200 and pos­si­bly up to 3,000 deaths in Cal­i­for­nia that oth­er­wise would not have oc­curred, ac­cord­ing to an es­ti­mate by re­searchers at Stan­ford Univer­sity. Those fa­tal­i­ties were among peo­ple age 65 and over, most of whom were liv­ing with pre­ex­ist­ing med­i­cal con­di­tions like heart dis­ease, di­a­betes and res­pi­ra­tory ail­ments.

By com­par­i­son, through Wed­nes­day, 26 peo­ple have died di­rectly in wild­fires this year statewide.

“Clean air is much more im­por­tant than we re­al­ize,” said Mar­shall Burke, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of earth sys­tem sci­ence at Stan­ford who cal­cu­lated the im­pacts. “When you look at it on a pop­u­la­tion level, you can see very clearly that breath­ing clean air has huge public health ben­e­fits, and breath­ing dirty air has dis­as­trous con­se­quences.”

Decades of med­i­cal re­search has shown that soot is among the most dan­ger­ous types of air pol­lu­tion to hu­man health. Known as “PM 2.5,” for par­tic­u­late mat­ter that is smaller than 2.5 mi­crons in size, the mi­cro­scopic soot par­ti­cles are so small that 30 or more of them can line up along the width of a hu­man hair.

Com­ing from diesel trucks, wild­fires, power plants, fire­places and other sources, the tiny par­ti­cles can travel deep into the lungs, even en­ter­ing the blood­stream, when peo­ple breathe them in high con­cen­tra­tions.

In mild lev­els they can cause itchy eyes and sore throats, cough­ing and a tight feel­ing in the chest. In more se­vere in­stances, they can trig­ger asthma at­tacks, heart at­tacks, strokes or res­pi­ra­tory fail­ure, par­tic­u­larly in the el­derly, in­fants and peo­ple with ex­ist­ing heart and lung prob­lems.

Burke and Sam HeftNeal, a re­search scholar at Stan­ford’s Cen­ter on Food Se­cu­rity and the En­vi­ron­ment, looked at a study pub­lished last year that used Medi­care data to show when lev­els of par­tic­u­late pol­lu­tion in­creased in com­mu­ni­ties around the United States, the death rate of peo­ple 65 and over also in­creased, as did emer­gency room vis­its.

That study, by re­searchers at the Univer­sity of

Illi­nois and Ge­or­gia State Univer­sity, found that for each day par­tic­u­late air pol­lu­tion in­creased by about 10% over typ­i­cal lev­els – or 1 mi­cro­gram per cu­bic me­ter – there was an in­crease in deaths over the next three days of 0.7 per 1 mil­lion peo­ple over 65, and a jump in emer­gency room vis­its among the el­derly by 2.7 per 1 mil­lion peo­ple.

Cal­i­for­nia has roughly 6 mil­lion peo­ple over age 65. The Stan­ford re­searchers com­pared air pol­lu­tion read­ings dur­ing Cal­i­for­nia’s fires with death rates and emer­gency room rates from the pre­vi­ous study to con­clude that at least 1,200 “ex­cess deaths” oc­curred from Aug. 1 to Sept. 10, along with about 4,800 ex­tra emer­gency room vis­its.

“Th­ese are hid­den deaths,” Burke said. “Th­ese are peo­ple who were prob­a­bly al­ready sick, but for whom air pol­lu­tion made them even sicker.”

Smoke lev­els broke all­time records in Cal­i­for­nia. The Bay Area Air Qual­ity Man­age­ment Dis­trict called 30 “Spare the Air” days in a row from Au­gust 18 to Septem­ber 16. Soot lev­els ex­ceeded fed­eral health stan­dards for 19 days. Air qual­ity was even worse in the Sierra, the Sacramento Val­ley and parts of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, where it reached 10 to 15 times the fed­eral health stan­dard. On Sept. 9, smoke turned the air across North­ern Cal­i­for­nia an apoc­a­lyp­tic orange color, mak­ing in­ter­na­tional news.

Burke noted Stan­ford’s anal­y­sis doesn’t in­clude very young chil­dren or peo­ple un­der 65 with se­ri­ous res­pi­ra­tory or heart con­di­tions. Nor does it in­clude Ore­gon or Wash­ing­ton, where ma­jor fires also are burn­ing.

Other re­searchers say they gen­er­ally sup­port Stan­ford’s con­clu­sions.

“It makes to­tal sense,” said Dr. John Balmes, a pro­fes­sor of medicine at UC San Fran­cisco and a mem­ber of the Cal­i­for­nia Air Re­sources Board. “I think it’s a fine pre­lim­i­nary anal­y­sis. It should give us pause.”

In re­cent days, Bay Area air has cleared. But there is still at least an­other month of fire sea­son.

Balmes and other ex­perts say it’s key when peo­ple can smell smoke out­doors that they go in­side and close doors and win­dows. On very smoky days, tow­els, masking tape or painter’s tape can block leaks. Air pu­ri­fiers, and wear­ing N95 or KN95 masks also can help.

“I don’t want to panic peo­ple who are healthy and with­out pre-ex­ist­ing dis­ease, but we should re­duce ex­po­sure as much as pos­si­ble,” Balmes said. “You should stay in­doors, and not be out­side any more than you have to be. Ex­er­cis­ing out­doors when the air qual­ity is bad is par­tic­u­larly prob­lem­atic.”

Los Angeles Times/tns

Breya Hodge walks her dog, So­phie, as smoke from the Bob­cat fire shrouds down­town Los Angeles on Sept. 14.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.