As CA Burns: Tips for Dealing With Smoky Air

Suzanne Potter | California News Service
Two photos taken from the same East Bay window show the air-quality change in San Francisco Bay before and during the recent fires. Photo Credit: Janice Kirsch

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Public health experts say smoke from the wildfires choking California skies carries dangerous levels of particulate matter. Studies show firestorms drive a spike in visits to the emergency room – especially among the elderly.

Dr. Janice Kirsch is a medical oncologist trained in public health. She said the toxins in the smoke can cause serious damage.

“Breathing these particulates can cause or exacerbate heart disease, respiratory disease, lung cancer and probably other cancers. Prolonged repeated exposure leads to dementia and other behavioral problems in children,” Kirsch said.

She said indoor air quality can be almost as bad as it is outdoors – so she advises people to use an air purifier and turn on the air conditioner if you have one, to improve circulation. If you must go outside, she said N-95 masks are effective, but the cloth masks people wear prevent the spread of coronavirus will not stop particulate matter.

Groups that fight climate change say the extreme drought, heat and wildfires are symptoms of a bigger problem. Kathy Dervin, co-chair of the state legislative committee with the nonprofit 350 Bay Area, said global warming is a public health emergency that demands rapid and transformative solutions.

“We have great goals for clean electricity, for cleaner fuels, for cleaner transportation. But we really need to front load those changes and not wait until the goal of 2045,” Dervin said. “We don’t have any time to wait.”

In 2018, California lawmakers passed Senate Bill 100, which set a goal of 100% clean electricity by 2045. Now advocates say the state has made so much progress, they’re calling for a new deadline of 2030.

They say the ultimate goal of net-zero emissions will depend on getting gasoline-powered cars off the road and on switching homes and businesses to clean electricity instead of natural gas. Natural gas is problematic because pipelines often leak methane, which is a powerful greenhouse gas.