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November 21, 2018

'We're like zombies': Northern California air was ranked dirtiest in the world last week. Here's what that means for residents' health.

Daily Briefing

    A wildfire raging through Northern California has caused air quality in the region to deteriorate, at several points topping notoriously smoggy cities in India and China, and exposing residents and rescue workers to hazardous conditions that could have long-term health effects.

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    The Camp Fire has been burning in Northern California since Nov. 8, San Francisco Gate Chronicle reports, killing at least 80 people, making it one of the deadliest fires in state history. Thousands of residents have been displaced and about 700 are still missing, according to CBS News.

    The worst air quality in the world

    Health officials on Thursday announced that Northern California had the worst air quality in the world—ahead of industrializing parts of China and India.

    The Air Quality Index (AQI), which measures the amount of hazardous smoke particles in the air, reached 239 in San Francisco and 246 in Oakland on Friday—the worst AQI readings in the city's recorded air-quality history, according to Kristine Roselius, a spokesperson for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. In Sacramento, Friday's air quality index reached 316, which Vox reports equivalent to smoking about 14 cigarettes, before falling to 179, which is equivalent to smoking eight cigarettes.

    Public health experts generally recommend people stay indoors when an AQI measurement reads between 35 and 70. An AQI reading of 150 is considered "unhealthy" and a reading of 200 is "very unhealthy," NBC reports. Stanley Young, spokesperson for the California Air Resources Board, said, "Once you get to 150, that's mask-wearing stuff."

    In the Bay Area, public schools and colleges closed and the cable cars stopped running due to the hazardous air conditions. The National Weather Service predicts the dangerous AQI readings will continue this week but rain is expected to improve air quality somewhat, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

    Poor air quality comes with long-term health risks

    The unhealthy air quality can lead to negative health effects—some of which can be long-term.

    Wood smoke has some of the same toxic chemicals as city pollution, and humans are not equipped to withstand inhaling unhealthy or excessive amounts of smoke particles. The AQI readings that are significantly above unhealthy levels put California residents and rescue workers in the area in danger of inhaling large amounts of caustic smoke particles, according to the New York Times. Those particles can settle into their lungs, irritate their respiratory systems, and harm the immune system.

    When a person is exposed to wood smoke, even for a short period of time, their body prepares an immune response to attack the foreign particles, according to Kari Nadeau, an allergy and asthma specialist at Stanford University. This intense immune response can make people's bodies hypersensitive to lung irritation, leading to a lifetime of allergies, asthma, or constricted breathing in response to slight irritation, according to the Times.

    "We're setting up a tipping point in the immune system that leads to more inflammation and disease," as well as dangerous complications, like heart attack or stroke, said Sharon Chinthrajah, a pulmonologist and allergist at Stanford.

    What's next for California residents

    State officials expect the Camp Fire will be 100% contained by Nov. 30, but the fire does not have to be extinguished to be contained, meaning the hazardous smoke will continue to travel south, the Times reports.

    As for California residents, state officials do not yet know what the long-term health effects of the fires will be.  

    Major hospitals in the Bay Area, including San Francisco General Hospital and Oakland Medical Centers, on Friday said they had not seen an increase in patients with breathing issues. But some residents are already reporting negative health effects from the wood smoke.

    Jewel Taylor, a 50-year-old woman who evacuated from Magalia, said her one-year-old grandson, Evan, had a cough and runny eyes as a result of the wood particles. "What do you do when you see your kid like this?" she said adding that the Camp Fire is "the worst. Ever."

    Some Paradise residents said they could feel the particles in their throats when they inhaled and said their breathing feels obstructed.

     "You almost feel like you're choking," said Becky Dearing, a resident of Paradise. "We're like zombies, walking around all the unknowns" (Resnick, Vox, 11/19; Turketwitz/Richtel, New York Times, 11/16; Dineen/Wu, San Francisco Chronicle, 11/16; Irfan, Vox, 11/19; Li, NBC, 11/16; Wu, San Francisco Chronicle, 11/20; Purple, accessed 11/20; Washington Post, accessed 11/20; CBS News, 11/20; Dowd, San Francisco Gate Chronicle, 11/15).

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