De­mand soars for air pu­ri­fiers in new era of Western wild­fires

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Insight - BY MARK KREIDLER Cal­i­for­nia Health­line

When the Camp Fire be­gan to rage in Par­adise last Novem­ber, the own­ers of the fam­i­lyrun Collier Hard­ware store in nearby Chico faced a sit­u­a­tion un­like any they'd seen.

A busi­ness that might wel­come 200 cus­tomers on an av­er­age day, Collier was sud­denly deal­ing with five times that num­ber — “and they all wanted the same thing,” coowner Steve Lu­cena said.

Alarmed by dense smoke, shop­pers were snap­ping up portable air pu­ri­fiers and breath­ing masks in stag­ger­ing num­bers. Collier Hard­ware sold nearly 60,000 adult-sized masks in a cou­ple of weeks, and gave away thou­sands more that were spe­cially de­signed for chil­dren.

“With the pu­ri­fiers, we had mul­ti­ple peo­ple un­load­ing them from the truck, and they were sold be­fore we could get them all the way into the store,” Lu­cena said. “Peo­ple didn't care what model it was or how much it cost. We'd nor­mally sell four to six in a year, and we sold 100 in a day.”

As hot, dry weather set­tles upon the West this sum­mer, fears of mas­sive wild­fires — and the smoke they pro­duce — are again tak­ing hold. It's true not only in ar­eas di­rectly threat­ened by fire, but even those hun­dreds of miles away where peo­ple ex­pect to be shrouded in lung clog­ging smoke.

The health risks are real, and they're al­ready part of a fu­ture that pub­lic-health ex­perts — and those who sell air-qual­ity prod­ucts — are an­tic­i­pat­ing.

“We aren't de­pend­ing on wild­fire sea­son to make a profit, be­cause we don't hope for an­other year of fires,” said Jo­ce­line Bar­ron, a spokes­woman for Los An­ge­les-based Rab­bit Air, which makes portable pu­ri­fiers.

“But we know the mar­ket does profit from that sea­son,” she said. “When the wild­fires were go­ing on, our phones were ring­ing all the time.”

Sales of portable air pu­ri­fiers in Cal­i­for­nia alone are ex­pected to rise dra­mat­i­cally over the next few years, from roughly 469,000 units in 2017 to a pre­dicted 720,000 in 2023, ac­cord­ing to a study by TechSci Re­search pre­sented at a re­cent meet­ing of the Cal­i­for­nia Air Re­sources Board.

Across the coun­try, an­nual sales of home air fil­ters are ex­pected to cross $1 bil­lion by 2023, ac­cord­ing to a re­port by Re­search and Mar­kets.

“In­ter­est in ef­fec­tive air pu­rifi­ca­tion has sig­nif­i­cantly risen in re­cent years due to wild­fires,” said Jaya Rao, chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer and co-founder of Molekule, a maker of a $799 pu­ri­fier. Sales of the unit have dou­bled each year since it de­buted in 2017, Rao said.

“We have seen peo­ple buy solely for the pur­pose of wild­fires, whether proac­tively or in the mo­ment, but we have also seen that the wild­fires have raised a gen­eral aware­ness about the need for good air pu­rifi­ca­tion ev­ery day,” she said.

Work­ers at Molekule got a close look at the im­pact of wild­fire sea­son last year, when the com­pany was so be­sieged by or­ders that it be­gan dis­tribut­ing them out the front of its San Fran­cisco cor­po­rate of­fice “to pro­vide re­lief the fastest,” Rao said.

Re­searchers from Har­vard and Yale in 2016 pro­duced a list of more than 300 coun­ties through­out the West that will be at the great­est risk of dan

ger­ous pol­lu­tion in the com­ing decades due to “smoke waves” em­a­nat­ing from in­creas­ingly in­tense wild­fires. Among the most vul­ner­a­ble are heav­ily pop­u­lated ar­eas such as San Fran­cisco, Alameda and Con­tra Costa coun­ties in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia, and King County in Wash­ing­ton.

Wild­fire smoke is dan­ger­ous be­cause of its con­cen­tra­tion of nox­ious fine par­ti­cles, which mea­sure 2.5 mi­crom­e­ters or less (a hu­man hair, by com­par­i­son, mea­sures 70 mi­crom­e­ters) and which, un­like com­mon dust, can be in­haled into the deep­est re­cesses of the lung.

In ad­di­tion to eye and res­pi­ra­tory tract ir­ri­ta­tion, this par­tic­u­late mat­ter — PM2.5 in sci­en­tific short­hand — can ex­ac­er­bate heart and lung is­sues, in­clud­ing asthma and chronic ob­struc­tive pul­monary dis­ease (COPD), and may lead to pre­ma­ture death. Chil­dren, older peo­ple and those with res­pi­ra­tory ill­nesses are par­tic­u­larly at risk.

“It can be pretty dense. It seeps through the walls and, of course, doors and win­dows when they're opened,” said Linda Smith, chief of the Cal­i­for­nia air board's health and ex­po­sure branch.

While much is still un­known about the longterm ef­fects of ex­po­sure to wild­fire smoke, the mi­cro­scopic par­ti­cles are reg­u­lated as an air pol­lu­tant. A study pub­lished last year in the jour­nal GeoHealth found that the num­ber of deaths linked to the in­hala­tion of wild­fire smoke in the U.S. could dou­ble by the end of the cen­tury, to nearly 40,000 per year.

Air pu­ri­fiers es­sen­tially func­tion as scrub­bers, re­mov­ing bac­te­ria, viruses and PM2.5 as the air passes through them. The air re­sources board rec­om­mends their use to limit the ef­fects of wild­fire smoke in the home. It main­tains a list of de­vices ap­proved for use in Cal­i­for­nia.

Portable air-clean­ing units were once con­sid­ered spe­cialty pur­chases, but sales-driven com­pe­ti­tion has flooded the mar­ket, forc­ing prices down. Where a high-end portable pu­ri­fier might cost $800 or more, sev­eral mod­els now cost less than $100. Shop­pers can find mod­els with well-known con­sumer ap­pli­ance names like Dyson, Hunter, Honey­well and Whirlpool as well as scores of more ob­scure man­u­fac­tur­ers. Sev­eral web­sites have at­tempted to eval­u­ate air pu­ri­fiers, in­clud­ing the size of the room they can ef­fec­tively clean.

For Jamie Buff­in­g­ton of El Macero, Calif., near Sacramento, the con­nec­tion was sim­ple enough. Though she had con­sid­ered buy­ing a pu­ri­fier be­cause of the pollen in her area, the mem­ory of be­ing in­un­dated with wild­fire smoke in­spired ac­tion ear­lier this sum­mer.

“The smoke last year was aw­ful,” Buff­in­g­ton said. “I'm ready now.”

Buff­in­g­ton said she bought a unit for the mas­ter bed­room of her home, and very quickly went back on­line to or­der two more, for rooms at a fam­ily cabin near Lake Ta­hoe. Dur­ing wild­fire sea­son last year, she said, “it was ter­ri­ble down here and ter­ri­ble up there. It makes sense to have them in both places.”

In­deed, through­out the West and be­yond, com­mu­ni­ties well re­moved from fires can find them­selves fight­ing through se­vere smoke and ash, as shift­ing winds push the plumes hun­dreds or even thou­sands of miles.

Ore­gon's De­part­ment of En­vi­ron­men­tal Qual­ity re­cently re­ported that un­healthy air con­di­tions were on the rise through­out the state, in­clud­ing ur­ban ar­eas like Port­land that are far from the wild­fires.

Smoke from the Camp Fire was noted across the con­ti­nent and as far away as New York City.

And while cities and towns will do what they can — of­fi­cials in Seat­tle, for ex­am­ple, an­nounced in June the retrofitti­ng of five build­ings to use as “clean-air shel­ters” on smoky days — the choice for many res­i­dents will be closer to home.

Back at Collier Hard­ware, the Lu­cena fam­ily has ad­justed its stock. Collier keeps plenty of breath­ing masks on the shelves, Steve Lu­cena said, and at least a hand­ful of air pu­ri­fiers are now in the store at all times. Ac­cess to an Ace Hard­ware sup­ply ware­house in Ro­seville about an hour and a half away means re­in­force­ments can be ob­tained quickly.

They are re­in­force­ments the fam­ily hopes never to need.

“We know we'll have fires,” Lu­cena said. “We just hope they won't be any­thing like last year. But we will be ready.”

JOHN WALKER [email protected]­

The dif­fer­ence in San Joaquin Val­ley air qual­ity is clear in this com­pos­ite of two pho­to­graphs show­ing the same view of the Kawaeh Range of the Sierra Ne­vada at Orosi, taken Jan. 16, 2019, on left, and Jan. 26, 2019, on right. Amid fore­casts for in­creas­ingly un­healthy air due to wild­fire smoke, res­i­dents in Western states are snatch­ing up home air pu­ri­fiers.

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