Quantcast

Smoke Is a Big Health Risk as California Wildfires Rage On

Health + Wellness
A smoky haze obstructs the view of the San Francisco skyline on Aug. 24 in San Francisco, California. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

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.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

During the summer, the Arctic tundra is usually a thriving habitat for mammals such as the Arctic fox. Education Images / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Reports of extreme snowfall in the Arctic might seem encouraging, given that the region is rapidly warming due to human-driven climate change. According to a new study, however, the snow could actually pose a major threat to the normal reproductive cycles of Arctic wildlife.

Read More Show Less
A fracking well looms over a residential area of Liberty, Colorado on Aug. 19. WildEarth Guardians / Flickr

A new multiyear study found that people living or working within 2,000 feet, or nearly half a mile, of a hydraulic fracturing (fracking) drill site may be at a heightened risk of exposure to benzene and other toxic chemicals, according to research released Thursday by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE)

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Pope Francis flanked by representatives of the Amazon Rainforest's ethnic groups and catholic prelates march in procession during the opening of the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region at The Vatican on Oct. 07 in Vatican City, Vatican. Alessandra Benedetti / Corbis News / Getty Images

By Vincent J. Miller

The Catholic Church "hears the cry" of the Amazon and its peoples. That's the message Pope Francis hopes to send at the Synod of the Amazon, a three-week meeting at the Vatican that ends Oct. 27.

Read More Show Less

The crowd appears to attack a protestor in a video shared on Twitter by ITV journalist Mahatir Pasha. VOA News / Youtube screenshot

Some London commuters had a violent reaction Thursday morning when Extinction Rebellion protestors attempted to disrupt train service during rush hour.

Read More Show Less
Some fruit drinks may appear to be healthier, but many can have high levels of added sugars. d3sign / Moment / Getty Images

By Kristen Fischer

Though the science has shown sugary drinks are not healthy for children, fruit drinks and similar beverages accounted for more than half of all children's drink sales in 2018, according to a new report.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Donald Trump attends the opening of Red Tiger Golf Course at Trump National Doral on Jan. 12, 2015 in Doral, Florida. Johnny Louis / FilmMagic

Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney made two controversial announcements about the 2020 Group of Seven (G7) summit: it will be hosted at one of President Donald Trump's golf resorts in Miami and it won't feature any discussion of the climate crisis.

Read More Show Less

Farms with just one or a handful of different crops encourage fewer species of pollinating and pest-controlling insects to linger, ultimately winnowing away crop yields, according to a new study.

Up to half of the detrimental impacts of the "landscape simplification" that monocropping entails come as a result of a diminished mix of ecosystem service-providing insects, a team of scientists reported Oct. 16 in the journal Science Advances.

Monocrop palm oil plantation Honduras.

SHARE Foundation / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0​

"Our study shows that biodiversity is essential to ensure the provision of ecosystem services and to maintain a high and stable agricultural production," Matteo Dainese, the study's lead author and a biologist at Eurac Research in Bolzano, Italy, said in a statement.

It stands to reason that, with declines in the sheer numbers of insects that ferry pollen from plant to plant and keep crop-eating pests under control, these services will wane as well. But until now, it hasn't been clear how monocultures affect the number and mix of these species or how crop yields might change as a result.

Aiming to solve these questions, Dainese and his colleagues pulled together data from 89 studies cutting across a variety of landscapes, from the tropics of Asia and Africa to the higher latitudes of northern Europe. They tabulated the number of pollinating and pest-controlling insects at these sites — both the absolute number of individuals and the number of species — along with an assessment of the ecosystem services the insects provided.

In almost all of the studies they looked at, the team found that a more diverse pool of these species translated into more pollination and greater pest control. They also showed that simplified landscapes supported fewer species of service-providing insects, which ultimately led to lower crop yields.

The researchers also looked at a third measure of the makeup of insect populations — what they called "evenness." In natural ecosystems, a handful of dominant species with many more individuals typically live alongside a higher number of rarer species. The team found as landscapes became less diverse, dominant species numbers dwindled and rare species gained ground. This resulting, more equitable mix led to less pollination (though it didn't end up affecting pest control).

"Our study provides strong empirical support for the potential benefits of new pathways to sustainable agriculture that aim to reconcile the protection of biodiversity and the production of food for increasing human populations," Ingolf Steffan-Dewenter, one of the study's authors and an animal ecologist at the University of Würzburg in Germany, said in the statement.

The scientists figure that the richness of pollinator species explains around a third of the harmful impacts of less diverse landscapes, while the richness of pest-controlling species accounts for about half of the same measure. In their view, the results of their research point to the need to protect biodiversity on and around crops in an uncertain future.

"Under future conditions with ongoing global change and more frequent extreme climate events, the value of farmland biodiversity ensuring resilience against environmental disturbances will become even more important," Steffan-Dewenter said.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Mongabay.

View of an Ivorian cleared forest at the edge of the 35.000 hectares Peko Mont National Park on Oct. 8, 2016. The Mont Péko National Park is located in the west of Ivory Coast where the forest officers fight with illegal immigrants to protect an exceptional flora and fauna, espacially dwarf elephants. SIA KAMBOU / AFP / Getty Images

Ivory Coast's rainforests have been decimated by cocoa production and what is left is put in peril by a new law that will remove legal protections for thousands of square miles of forests, according to The Guardian.

Read More Show Less