Calif. fires spark health con­cerns

Med­i­cal ex­perts fear haz­ards from broader ex­po­sure

Post Tribune (Sunday) - - News - By Lind­sey Tan­ner As­so­ci­ated Press

Smoke masks. Eye drops. No out­door ex­er­cise. This is how Cal­i­for­ni­ans are try­ing to cope with 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.

Re­search sug­gests chil­dren, the el­derly and those with ex­ist­ing health prob­lems are most at risk.

Short-term ex­po­sure to wild­fire smoke can worsen ex­ist­ing asthma and lung dis­ease, lead­ing to emer­gency room treat­ment or hos­pi­tal­iza­tion, stud­ies have shown.

In­creases in doc­tor vis­its or hos­pi­tal treat­ment for res­pi­ra­tory in­fec­tions, bron­chi­tis and pneu­mo­nia in oth­er­wise healthy peo­ple also have been found dur­ing and af­ter wild­fires.

Some stud­ies also have found in­creases in ER vis­its for heart at­tacks and strokes in peo­ple with ex­ist­ing heart dis­ease on heavy smoke days dur­ing pre­vi­ous Cal­i­for­nia wild­fires, echo­ing re­search on po­ten­tial risks from ur­ban air pol­lu­tion.

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 that the chang­ing face of wild­fires will pose 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,” said Dr. Wayne Cas­cio, a U.S. En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency car­di­ol­o­gist.

In an overview pub­lished ear­lier this year, Cas­cio wrote that the in­creas­ing fre­quency of large wild­land fires, ur­ban ex­pan­sion into wooded ar­eas and an ag­ing pop­u­la­tion are all in­creas­ing the num­ber of peo­ple at risk for 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. Th­ese can in­fil­trate the blood­stream, po­ten­tially caus­ing in­flam­ma­tion and blood ves­sel dam­age even in healthy peo­ple, re­search on ur­ban air pol­lu­tion has shown.

Stud­ies have linked heart at­tacks and can­cer with long-term ex­po­sure to air pol­lu­tion.

Whether ex­po­sure to wild­fire smoke car­ries the same risks is un­cer­tain, and de­ter­min­ing harm from smog ver­sus wild­fire smoke can be tricky, es­pe­cially with wind-swept Cal­i­for­nia wild­fires spread­ing thick smoke hun­dreds of miles away into smoggy big cities.

“That is the big ques­tion,” said Dr. John Balmes, a Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at San Fran­cisco, pro­fes­sor of medicine who stud­ies air pol­lu­tion.

“Very lit­tle is known about the long-term ef­fects of wild­fire smoke be­cause it’s hard to study pop­u­la­tions years af­ter a wild­fire,” Balmes said.

De­creased lung func­tion has been found in healthy fire­fight­ers dur­ing fire sea­son. They tend to re­cover but fed­eral leg­is­la­tion signed this year will es­tab­lish a U.S. reg­istry track­ing fire­fight­ers and po­ten­tial risks for var­i­ous can­cers, in­clud­ing lung can­cer. Some pre­vi­ous stud­ies sug­gested a risk.

Balmes noted that increased lung can­cer rates have been found in women in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries who spend ev­ery day cook­ing over wood fires.

That kind of ex­treme ex­po­sure doesn’t typ­i­cally hap­pen with wild­fires, but ex­perts worry about the kinds of health dam­age that may emerge for fire­fight­ers and res­i­dents with th­ese blazes oc­cur­ring so often.

Whether that in­cludes more can­cer is un­known. “We’re con­cerned about that,” Balmes said.

Reg­u­lar folks breath­ing in all that smoke worry about the risks too.

Smoke from the fire that dec­i­mated the North­ern Cal­i­for­nia city of Par­adise dark­ened skies the past few days in San Fran­cisco, nearly 200 miles south­west, and the air smelled “like you were c a mp i n g,” said Michael Northover, a con­trac­tor.

He and his 14-year-old son have first-time si­nus in­fec­tions that Northover blames on the smoke. “We’re all kind of feel­ing it,” Northover said.

Most schools in Fol­som, Oak­land, Sacra­mento and San Fran­cisco closed Fri­day be­cause of poor air qual­ity.

An En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency web­site said that air qual­ity in Sacra­mento was “haz­ardous” last week and San Fran­cisco’s was “very un­healthy.”

Many peo­ple walk­ing around the cities wore face masks.

Classes were can­celed in at least six uni­ver­si­ties in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia as smoke from the fire con­tin­ued to blan­ket all nine coun­ties of the Bay Area. Some were clos­ing all build­ings but oth­ers, in­clud­ing Cal State East Bay said li­braries, health cen­ters and din­ing halls would stay open.

At Chico State Univer­sity, 11 miles from Par­adise, classes were can­celed un­til af­ter Thanks­giv­ing.

“It’s kind of freaky to see your whole town wear­ing air masks and try­ing to get out of smoke,” said fresh­man Ma­son West, 18. “You can see the par­ti­cles. Ob­vi­ously it’s prob­a­bly not good to be breath­ing that stuff in.”

West re­turned home to Santa Rosa, hard hit by last year’s wine coun­try fire, only to find it shrouded in smoke from the Par­adise fire 100 miles away. West’s fam­ily had to evac­u­ate last year for a week but their home was spared.

“It’s as bad here as it was in Chico,” West said. “It al­most feels like you just can’t get away from it.”

Smoke has been so thick in Santa Rosa that re­searchers post­poned a door-todoor sur­vey there for a study of health ef­fects of last year’s fire.

“We didn’t feel we could jus­tify our vol­un­teer in­terns go­ing knock­ing on doors when all the air qual­ity alerts were say­ing (to) stay in­doors,” said Irva HertzPic­ciotto, a pub­lic health re­searcher at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia in Davis. The study in­cludes an on­line sur­vey of house­holds af­fected by last year’s fire, with re­sponses from about 6,000 peo­ple.

Pre­lim­i­nary data show wide­spread res­pi­ra­tory prob­lems, eye ir­ri­ta­tions, anx­i­ety, de­pres­sion and sleep prob­lems around the time of the fire and months later.

“Con­ven­tional think­ing is that th­ese ef­fects re­lated to fires are tran­sient. It’s not en­tirely clear that’s the case,” Hertz-Pic­ciotto said.

Re­searchers also will be an­a­lyz­ing cord blood and pla­cen­tas col­lected from a few dozen women who were preg­nant dur­ing the fire, seek­ing ev­i­dence of stress mark­ers or ex­po­sure to smoke chem­i­cals.

They hope to con­tinue the study for years, seek­ing ev­i­dence of long-term phys­i­cal and emo­tional harms to fire evac­uees and their chil­dren.

Other stud­ies have linked emo­tional stress in preg­nant women to de­vel­op­men­tal prob­lems in their chil­dren and “this was quite a stress,” Hertz-Pic­ciotto said.

It’s a kind of stress that many peo­ple need to pre­pare for as the cli­mate warms and wild­fires pro­lif­er­ate, she said.

“Any of us could wake up to­mor­row and lose ev­ery­thing we own,” she said. “It’s pretty scary.”


Smoke and haze have ob­scured the San Fran­cisco sky­line re­cently. Above, a fer­ry­boat re­turns to the water­front Thurs­day.

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