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The Real Health Risks of Wildfire Smoke

What are we breathing, for how long, and why are you still running?

The Rincon Fire in the Santa Cruz Mountains was one of several smaller fires that burned this month, in addition to the Woolsey and Camp fires. PHOTO: JESSE AGUIAR

“It’s scary to see people with respirators,” a man waiting in line behind me at the ATM told me last week, his eyes lingering on the bulbous white contraption covering most of my face.

“Yeah, I know,” was my muffled reply, though I wasn’t sure if I should be apologizing for my startling appearance, or the climate-fueled hellscape we once knew as “fire season.”

Headaches, fatigue, itchy eyes and throat—the physical symptoms of smoke exposure are nothing compared to the fear and sadness that’s come with the November wind. It’s safe to say California is in a state of collective grief. To the first responders and firefighters, including 1,400 prison inmates and backup engines coming from Colorado and other western states, Thanksgiving goes to you. For the third year in a row.

It wasn’t long before my sole N95 mask, purchased online during last year’s fire season, began to suffocate, plugged up as it was, and I joined the vast majority of Santa Cruz residents going without; our lungs naked to air so polluted it’s registering on monitors as far away as Delaware.

“That material will eventually come out of the air, but we know from volcanoes and other huge serious forest fires throughout the world that this stuff can remain airborne for a number of weeks,” says Richard Stedman, an air pollution controller at Monterey Bay Air Resources District (MBARD).

That’s after the fires are out. But if the wildfire trend continues for the next decade as scientists predict, we are at a turning point for air quality norms.

“It looks like more and more, people are going to have to plan their events at different times of the year, and have a closer relationship with public health officials,” says Stedman, after the Monterey half-marathon was canceled due to dangerous air quality two weekends ago.

Doing anything that increases your heart rate also deepens your breathing, and is the exact opposite of laying low and limiting exposure, which common sense and health officials strongly advise.

So what exactly is raining down on us? A PM2.5 particulate is very tiny. The EPA offers this analogy: the average human hair is 70 micrograms in diameter. Picture one-thirtieth of that. They’re made up of carbon, various chemicals, minerals, and other known and unknown byproducts of combustion.

“The particles are inflammatory wherever they end up,” says Dr. Dawn Motyka of the podcast Ask Dr. Dawn. The lung, the gut—if you swallow enough of them—nasal passageways. “And they can irritate the brain. Many of them contain compounds that are carcinogenic. They can cause transformation of the human bronchial epithelium, so in other words they can trigger cancers.”  

If you’re outside without a mask, breathe in through your nose, and out through your mouth, says Motyka. “The nose is designed as a filter. It serves to trap a lot of the larger particles.” Many of the particles that get past our natural defenses remain in the lung to do their damage. But “when you breathe in the smaller particles they get down into the alveoli, and we now know that they go everywhere. They cross the capillary bed into the bloodstream,” says Motyka. “They’ve been found in Alzheimer’s plaques, and throughout the lungs.”

Some of the particles are fatty, acting like liposomes that can cross into solid tissue readily, she adds.

On Saturday, Nov. 10, the Air Quality Index (AQI) in Santa Cruz reached an “unhealthy” high of 188—with the highest concentration of PM2.5 or smaller that day reading 92 micrograms per cubic meter—nearly three times the federal health standard of 35 micrograms per cubic meter, says Stedman. Most of the smoke has come from the Camp Fire, 229 miles to our north. Over the past two weeks, concentrations have spiked higher than that, too, says Stedman. But AQI is determined by a rolling 24-hour average of inhalable particulate matter. The health impacts of shorter windows of exposure to high concentrations have not been determined, says Stedman. To that end, the EPA has released a citizen science app called SmokeSense to gather data around wildfire smoke impact.

“When you burn through a house, you get a much more toxic situation,” says Motyka. In addition to burnt organic matter, “we’re also getting every fluorocarbon, all of those compounds, the fire retardants, the waterproofing agents, the Scotchguard, all of the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.”

The Camp Fire has burned more than 11,000 structures. It’s likely that asbestos, which doesn’t burn, was also released, though MBARD only measures particulate concentration, not its makeup. As for rumors of radioactive particles, Stedman says, “There’s a lot of natural radioactive material in our natural environment, so that would not be surprising,” but as for man-made or mined materials, “I don’t think anybody’s looking for that.” Agencies don’t test for radioisotopes unless they have reason, like a nuclear plant or waste depot in the burn path.

N95 masks block 95 percent of particulates that are .3 microns and larger in size. “That’s dropping it way, way back,” says Motyka, though they won’t protect you from CO2 or some of the other gases released. Along with air purifiers (which Motyka highly recommends using) N95s are pretty much sold out locally, though Kelly-Moore Paints is waiting on its next shipment after giving out hundreds over the last couple of days.

Stedman is not enthusiastic about the masks, pointing out that facial hair and individual features can prevent a vacuum seal, allowing particulates to seep in (Motyka recommends using paper tape if that’s the case), and that they can pose risks to the elderly and individuals with health issues, as they make it harder to breathe. Ideally, such sensitive people should get to cleaner air.

Obviously, anyone with a history of respiratory or heart vulnerability is at greatest risk, and should be extra careful. Keep doors and windows shut, wash your vegetables extremely well, and even after this stuff comes out of the air, says Motyka, hose down your walkways. Pretending the particles are radioactive is a good standard for limiting exposure, says Motyka. “If you go back to all of the precautions that one takes for radioactivity—people had manuals for this stuff back in the ’50s—we’re trying to keep small particles from coming inside. Mopping the floor, taking your shoes off outside, those are the things you want to do.”

As for the heavy metals and some of the lipid-soluble chemicals already in our systems, the best thing to do is sweat them out, says Motyka, who recommends five minutes a day in a sauna or a hot bath. “And poop. A lot,” says Motyka. “Remember you’re swallowing a lot of particles, and because they’re lipid soluble, if they’re sitting in your colon, they’re going to melt back into the bloodstream the way that oil goes through a paper towel.” Drinking lots of water and eating lots of fiber should do the trick.

“If you are going to exercise, your best place to do it is probably in the ocean or in a pool,” says Motyka, as air quality is generally improved above water—but only for about six inches above the surface.

Stedman recommends AirNow.gov, which gets its data from MBARD, to stay on top of AQI—but they don’t provide up-to-the-minute particulate concentration like PurpleAir.com does. “What we’ve been finding is [Purple Air monitors] have been over predicting concentrations, and then in other areas, especially along the coast, they’re actually under predicting,” he says. “We may have a situation where in the future we start giving instantaneous air results. This was never an issue until these last few years when we started seeing these severe wildfires, and we realized that people want to know what they’re being exposed to currently.”

Please consider donating to one of the many relief efforts being organized by North Valley Community Foundation, at nvcf.org; California Community Foundation, at calfund.org; and 805undocufund.org.

Managing Editor at Good Times Newspaper |

The managing editor at Good Times, Maria Grusauskas writes the column Wellness, and also gravitates toward stories about earth science. She won a CNPA award for environmental reporting in 2015. Her interests include photography, traveling, human consciousness, music, and gardening. Her work has also appeared in Astronomy magazine, High Times magazine, Los Gatos magazine and on shareable.net.

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