Smoke Is a Big Health Risk as California Wildfires Rage On
By Nneka Leiba
Deadly wildfires continue to blaze in Northern and Southern California. Dozens of people are dead, hundreds more missing and entire communities have been destroyed.
Our foremost concern is for the immediate victims. (Here's how to help.) But even hundreds of miles from the fires, much of the state is blanketed in dangerous smoke. For more than a week, the air quality in San Francisco, Los Angeles and other major cities has been classified as "unhealthy" or "very unhealthy."
The wildfires are releasing tons of pollutants into the air that will linger long after the fires are put out. Hazardous chemicals that may be present in building structures or products—such as asbestos insulation, vinyl materials, plastics, electronics casings and flame retardants—are released into the air as these things burn, creating airborne carcinogens.
The extremely fine particles in soot and smoke harm our lungs. The particulates can trigger symptoms like difficulty breathing, coughing and headaches, or worsen respiratory diseases, like asthma. They also can damage the heart, circulatory system and brain.
Health experts agree that the best defense is to stay indoors.
Although the poor air quality puts everyone at risk, children, the elderly and people with asthma, cardiovascular or respiratory diseases are particularly vulnerable. People in these groups should take extra precautions. Exposure to air pollution during pregnancy can affect thyroid hormone levels in the developing fetus, and may contribute to reduced birth weight, preterm birth and a greater risk of chronic health conditions later in life.
Monitor your local air quality using resources like the EPA's AirNOW website, and pay attention to air quality reports and advisories posted by your local government. You can also search AirNOW using your zip code to learn more about your air quality.
Here are the Environmental Working Group's (EWG) tips to staying safe in areas with poor air quality:
- Remain indoors when you can.
- Keep windows and doors closed.
- Keep indoor air as clean as possible. Avoid smoking, and cook without generating fumes.
- If you have a central air system, make sure it's fitted with the highest-rated filter it can accommodate. The American Lung Association recommends using filters with Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value or MERV, of 10 or higher. Also, operate the central air system with the fan on to ensure constant movement of air through the system.
- Replace HVAC filters frequently so they work with maximum efficiency.
- Consider a portable air cleaner to use in bedrooms, children's rooms and nurseries. California's Air Resources Board has a list of certified air cleaners here. We recommend air cleaners equipped with a high-efficiency, or HEPA, filter. Beware ionizing electronic air cleaners that may intentionally produce ozone, a potent respiratory irritant and the main component of ground-level smog.
- When you have to go outdoors in an area with polluted air, consider wearing a face mask or a respirator labeled N95 or P100. These can be found at most hardware stores and will help to filter out the fine particles in smoke. Consult the California Department of Public Health's tips to make sure you're using your mask correctly and maximizing protection.
- Whether you're inside or outside in one of these areas, avoid vigorous activity.
- In extreme cases, consider leaving the area until the air quality improves.
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It's going to be back-to-school time soon, but will children go into the classrooms?
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) thinks so, but only as long as safety measures are in place.
Keeping Schools Safe<p>What will safer schools look like?</p><p>In a <a href="https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2766822" target="_blank">JAMA article</a> published last month, <a href="https://www.jhsph.edu/faculty/directory/profile/1781/joshua-m-sharfstein" target="_blank">Dr. Joshua Sharfstein</a>, a pediatrician and professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, outlined suggestions — many of which are similar to AAP's.</p><p>Remote learning protocols must stay in place, especially as some schools stagger home and in-building learning. If another shutdown needs to occur, children will rely on distance learning completely, so it must be easy to switch to, he said.</p><p>He suggested giving parents a daily checklist to document their child's health. Kids should be screened quickly on arrival and be given hygiene supplies. Maintenance staff should use appropriate PPE and have regular cleaning schedules. A notification system should be in place if a case is identified, Sharfstein recommended.</p><p><a href="https://www.albany.edu/rockefeller/faculty/erika-martin" target="_blank">Erika Martin</a>, PhD, an associate professor of public administration and policy at University at Albany, said nutrition assistance and health services should be included. She called for tutoring programs with virtual options as well as technology access.</p>
Supporting Staff<p>Teachers and staff will be affected by safeguarding measures, noted <a href="https://directory.sph.umn.edu/bio/sph-a-z/rachel-widome" target="_blank">Rachel Widome</a>, PhD, an associate professor of epidemiology and community health at University of Minnesota.</p><p>"In order for all of the in-school precautions to work well, we'll be asking a lot of teachers and staff," Widome told Healthline. In addition to their usual workload, they'll now be asked to monitor mask-wearing, ensure children are keeping distance, and be aware of any symptoms.</p><p>Along with Sharfstein, Widome called for an increase in financial support. More employees will likely be required so teachers and staff members can keep up with the added demands.</p>
Should Kids Go Back?<p>While these guidelines may help get some schools to reopen, many people don't think children should go back to school over fears they could contract the disease and spread it to other vulnerable family members like grandparents, infant siblings, or their parents.</p><p>In a <a href="https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2020/07/08/peds.2020-004879" target="_blank">Pediatrics</a> commentary, <a href="https://www.md.com/doctor/william-raszka-md" target="_blank">Dr. William V. Raszka, Jr.</a>, an infectious disease specialist at The University of Vermont Medical Center, argued that schools should open because school-aged children are far less important drivers of COVID-19 than adults.</p><p>But he says the risk and benefit is not equal among all students ages 5 to 18.</p><p>"Elementary schools are arguably higher priority for face-to-face schooling, since younger children are at lower risk for infection and transmission, and since parental supervision of younger children's distance learning may be particularly challenging," added Sorensen, who penned a <a href="https://jamanetwork.com/channels/health-forum/fullarticle/2767411" target="_blank">June article in JAMA</a> with reopening tips. "That means middle and high schools are more likely to emphasize distance learning."</p><p>Specific student populations, such as special education students and students with disabilities, would also benefit greatly from more time spent in face-to-face environments, Sorensen said.</p>
What Parents Can Do<p>Parents should ask for and receive frequent updates from schools about plans for the fall. They should also be informed about plans if and when COVID infections are identified, Sharfstein said.</p><p>"I'd like to see parents investing now, during the summer, in doing things that can slow and stop the spread of the virus in their communities," Widome said.</p><p>"Now is a good time for kids to practice wearing masks and get used to them as they may be wearing them for longer stretches if school starts up in person," Widome suggested.</p><p>She recommends parents try different mask designs and materials to see what children are more comfortable wearing.</p><p>"If you are using cloth face coverings, it's good to have extras on hand," Widome added.</p><p>Parents should model healthy behavior at home and while out in public — another thing that could affect how well children adapt to reopening practices, Sorensen said.</p><p>"Children may want to know more about face coverings," added <a href="https://www.linkedin.com/in/leescott/" target="_blank">Lee Scott</a>, chairwoman of the Educational Advisory Board at <a href="https://www.goddardschool.com/" target="_blank">The Goddard School</a>. "Dramatic play, such as creating or wearing a face covering, may help some children adjust to this concept." Schools can also show children photos of what faculty members look like in their masks so the students are familiar with that appearance.</p><p>Johns Hopkins University recently released its eSchool+ Initiative, a slew of resources surrounding education during the pandemic. These include a <a href="https://equityschoolplus.jhu.edu/reopening-checklist/" target="_blank">checklist for administrators</a>, report on <a href="https://equityschoolplus.jhu.edu/ethics-of-reopening/" target="_blank">ethical considerations</a>, and a tracker of <a href="https://equityschoolplus.jhu.edu/reopening-policy-tracker/" target="_blank">state and local reopening plans</a>.</p>
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<div id="fea63" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9a6f211c2bc5aedd34837944cb8eeedf"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1281000111481294849" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Water in Illinois is overwhelmingly public. Why is Tammy Duckworth sponsoring a bill that aims to change that? https://t.co/1V36Kkd99s</div> — The American Prospect (@The American Prospect)<a href="https://twitter.com/TheProspect/statuses/1281000111481294849">1594249201.0</a></blockquote></div>
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