Tag Archives: Air Quality

Wildfire smoke is up to 10 times more harmful to breathe than other air pollution

New study finds wildfire smoke impacts respiratory health more than fine particles from other sources

REDWOOD CITY, CA – SEPTEMBER 09: Smoke from wildfires burning in Northern California filter the sun light in Redwood City, Calif., on Sept. 9, 2020. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)
REDWOOD CITY, CA – SEPTEMBER 09: Smoke from wildfires burning in Northern California filter the sun light in Redwood City, Calif., on Sept. 9, 2020. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)
Vallejo Times-Herald, by Paul Rogers, March 6, 2021

Choking smoke from record wildfires blanketed Northern California last summer and fall. It turned Bay Area skies an otherworldly orange, raising health concerns over a hazard that is increasing as temperatures continue to climb and poorly managed forests burn out of control each year across the West.

With this winter being extraordinarily dry, the chances of another big wildfire year are high. But the flames may not pose the biggest danger to the most people: A new study published Friday found that tiny particles of soot from wildfires, which millions of Californians are breathing in, are up to 10 times as harmful to human respiratory health as particulate pollution from other sources, such as car exhaust, factories or power plants.

“We’ve been really successful in reducing air pollution across the country by improving standards for automobiles, trucks and power plants,” said Tom Corringham, a research economist who studies climate and atmospheric science at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC-San Diego. “The trend has been a decrease in air pollution. But these wildfires are getting worse.”

Corringham and his fellow researchers studied the number of people admitted to hospitals with respiratory problems daily from 1999 to 2012 in Southern California. They compared it to data from fires, Santa Ana winds and smoke plumes from San Diego to Santa Barbara.

They found that when air pollution of tiny particles called PM 2.5 — for particulate matter 2.5 microns or smaller, so small that 30 of them can line up along the width of a human hair — increased modestly, the number of people admitted to hospitals for respiratory ailments such as asthma increased by 1% on average. But when PM 2.5 levels from wildfire smoke went up by the same amount, or 10 micrograms per cubic meter, there was a 10% increase in those hospital admissions.

The tiny particles can penetrate deep into people’s lungs, enter the bloodstream and increase the risk of heart attacks, strokes and other serious health issues.

Last year, 4.2 million acres — an area 13 times the size of the city of Los Angeles — burned in California, the most in modern times. Fires from the Santa Cruz Mountains to the Southern Sierra sent enormous plumes of smoke over the state’s largest cities and as far away as the East Coast. On Sept. 9, smoke mixed with the marine layer, turning Bay Area skies an apocalyptic orange.

OAKLAND, CA – SEPTEMBER 09: Orange sky glows above the Fox Theater on Telegraph Avenue in downtown Oakland, Calif., on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. The unusual orange and red-hued skies were a result of smoke from the Northern California wildfires. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District called 30 “Spare the Air” days in a row from August 18 to September 16. Soot levels nearly as bad blanketed the Bay Area during the Camp Fire in 2018 and Wine Country fires in 2017. In the Sierra, the Sacramento Valley and parts of Southern California, air quality was even worse last year, reaching 10 to 15 times the federal health standard.

A study by Stanford researchers concluded that the fires last fall caused 1,200 excess deaths and 4,800 extra emergency room visits in California, mostly among people 65 and older with pre-existing conditions such as respiratory problems, diabetes and heart disease.

More is on the way. Wildfire risk is expected to be high this summer due to the unusually dry winter. Last fall, state and federal officials signed an agreement to double the rate of thinning forests that have grown unnaturally thick due to generations of fire suppression. Gov. Gavin Newsom added $1 billion to California’s state budget this year for increased forest management, fuel breaks, fire inspections and fire crews.

But Corringham said that as the climate continues to warm and wildfires increase, government agencies must directly address the health risks of smoke, particularly to the elderly and low-income people. More “clean room” cooling centers, rebates for home air purifiers and better public education campaigns are key, he said.

Other health officials generally agreed.

Dr. John Balmes, a professor of medicine at UC San Francisco and a member of the California Air Resources Board, said some types of particle pollution, such as diesel soot, can be more dangerous than wildfire smoke. But overall, he agreed with the Scripps researchers’ conclusions that wildfire smoke poses a growing threat to the state’s residents as the climate warms.

“There’s no question it’s a huge air quality problem that has major health impacts,” Balmes said.

“There was a ring of fire last year around the Bay Area,” he added. “We are going to have to spend billions of dollars to maintain our forests better. It is going to take years. It can’t be done overnight.”

Scientists don’t know precisely why wildfire smoke is more harmful than most other particulate pollution. One theory is that when buildings burn, everything toxic in them, from heavy metals to plastics to pesticides, is sent airborne in smoke. Another theory is that the carbon nature of the particles causes more inflammation and stress on the lungs than other types of pollution.

“They are saying that wildfire smoke is more toxic. And that’s probably true,” said Dr. Mary Prunicki, director of air pollution and health research at Stanford University’s Sean Parker Center for Allergy and Asthma Research. “Usually direct deaths from wildfires are smaller than the effects from the smoke.”

BONNY DOON, CA – AUGUST 20: As the CZU August Lightning Complex fire burns houses near by, a Santa Cruz County Central Fire Protection District firefighter works in a residential neighborhood near Empire Grade to protect the remaining homes in Bonny Doon, Calif., in the early morning of Aug. 20, 2020. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)

Letter from Benicia’s Marilyn Bardet to BAAQMD: Must enforce refinery air monitor requirements

Copy of Marilyn Bardet’s letter, forcefully asking the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to follow through on promised enforcement of refinery air monitoring standards


Marilyn Bardet

From: Marilyn Bardet <email>
Subject: BAAQMD oversight/enforcement of Reg 12 – Rule 15, the Petroleum Refining Emissions Tracking Rule.
Date: October 21, 2020 at 3:37:37 PM PDT
To: Marcy Hiratzka <email@baaqmd.gov>

October 21, 2020

BAAQMD Board of Directors
Chair: Council member Rod Sinks, City of Cupertino
Vice Chair: Supervisor Cindy Chavez, Santa Clara County
Secretary: Supervisor Karen Mitchoff,  Contra Costa County

Sent via email:  <email@baaqmd.gov>

Subject:    BAAQMD oversight and enforcement of Regulation 12 – Rule 15, the Petroleum Refining Emissions Tracking Rule.

Dear Chair Rod Sinks, Vice Chair Cindy Chaves, Secretary Karen Mitchoff and Direrctors

I’m writing  as a 34-year resident of Benicia and a founding active member of the Good Neighbor Steering Committee, [“GNSC”] which was organized in 2000 to address public concerns and protect community health and safety as related to operations of the Valero refinery. I’d hope to express the following concerns at the Special Meeting held as a webinar today, but was unable to do so.

On August 1st, the Board received emailed letters from Jay Gunkelman and myself, outlining problems to date with refineries’ fenceline monitoring systems’ performance and reliability.

As you recall, Rule 15 was adopted in April, 2016. It required Bay Area refineries to install new, best technology fenceline monitoring systems, with raw data to be collected in real time at 5 minute intervals, and with a website provided for public access to that data.

After 4 years since Rule 15’s adoption, for the sake of public health and community safety, we would have expected by now that the Air District would have enforced standards for reliable performance of fenceline monitoring systems at all Bay Area refineries, and that data quality would be assured. Yet, to date, as per Rule 15 protocols, the District has not yet signed off on—e.g., given final approval of— the refineries’ fenceline monitoring and quality assurance plans. This is an unacceptable situation.

Today, we encourage the board and staff to fully address the various problems associated to Rule 15’s implementation at all Bay Area refineries. 

Pertinent to the Benicia community, Valero recently asserted that their Benicia refinery will be “the last man standing” among Bay Are refineries, and will continue to refine crude oil and produce petroleum products. Emissions tracking and fenceline monitoring will continue to be of particular concern to Benicians. The reliability of Valero’s fenceline systems’ performance is in serious doubt. 

In 2017, as per Rule 15 Guidelines, the GNSC submitted substantial comments to the District on Valero’s plans that had been created by Sonoma Tech for Valero.

In late 2019, the Benicia City Council voted to encourage Valero to get their fenceline systems installed and up and running before the District’s original deadline. Valero complied, installing 3 pathway systems and creating a public website to provide access to the data collected. Later, when public questions began to arise, Valero said that the new Hydrogen Sulfide monitoring system they’d purchased had never been field tested. After a year’s worth of data collection, data reliability remains questionable even for “signature” gases, including benzene. According to the Federal EPA’s Benzene Fenceline Monitoring Program, Valero’s benzene emissions were not only found to be the highest in the Bay Area; Valero’s total benzene emissions are four times greater than the four other refineries in the region.

It is implausible that there would be so few reportable detections, as the website routinely reports. Repeatedly, the website indicates that instruments are offline, or data is “pending final review.” Whose review? There is apparently no public access to archived data. Good science requires independent validation of data. Credibility of the systems and the data collection is at stake. Without independent review, public confusion and doubt about the sytems’ reliability will persist.

Right now, there is no independent, 3rd party data analysis required by the Air District. Yet verification of data for accuracy is crucial to public trustUnfortunately, in our casethe District has still not yet approved Valero’s fenceline monitoring system plan including the required quality assurance plan as mandated by Rule 12-15.

In the meantime, concerned Benicia residents formed a non-profit, incorporated in 2019, to provide an independently operated, community-based air-monitoring station for Benicia, called Benicia Community Air Monitoring Program. The system will be operated by solar, and will meet international standards for data quality. (Funding was appropriated through GNSC’s urging amendments to the  Settlement Agreement negotiated with Valero and City of Benicia.) We expect the new station will be operational by the end of 2020.

How is it possible that a small community group in Benicia can locate, configure and install an array of air monitoring equipment in less than a year, while the refineries in the Bay Area are still installing technologically inferior fenceline systems four years after they were told by the BAAQMD that these systems had to be approved and proven reliable, thus producing accurate data by now? 

I reiterate my request made in my letter of August 1st: 

We ask the Board to compel Valero to present all of the data associated with these systems to the public as soon as possible. In addition, we would like to see all raw data produced by the fenceline system at Valero so that it can be reviewed by independent experts. We ask that the  public have access to all District staff comments on refineries’ monitoring plans including quality assurance plans.

Thank you for your timely consideration of these matters.

Respectfully,

Marilyn Bardet
Benicia CA 94510

VIDEO: Benicia candidate forum on Air Quality and Refinery Issues

Many thanks to Benicia’s Good Neighbor Steering Committee for hosting this important event!

Video by Constance Beutel for the Good Neighbor Steering Committee

The Benicia Good Neighbor Steering Committee wants to thank all the participating Mayoral and City Council candidates and those who attended the Educational Forum on Air Quality and Refinery issues on October 5, 2020.

The Zoom webinar was recorded, and is now available on Youtube (and viewable below). There are several viewing options, including the full video from start to finish, as well as individual candidate videos highlighting each candidate and their responses to the Good Neighbor Steering Committee questions.

While watching, you may want to view or download a copy of the 9 questions asked each candidate, including excellent background material.

Below are the videos and Youtube links.

[BenIndy editor: Note that each video begins after a 20-second “title screen” followed by an 8 minute introduction by Marilyn Bardet.  After watching those sections once, you may want to jump ahead to the first question at 8:00 or the candidate response, beginning around 8:45. – R.S.]

Full video, start to finish:   Good Neighbor Steering Committee City Council and Mayoral 2020 Candidates Forum: October 5, 2020  
Christina Strawbridge, Mayoral Candidate: https://youtu.be/zy6CH3sgU-w
Steve Young, Mayoral Candidate:  https://youtu.be/DW0pl3MgLP4
Tom Campbell, City Council Candidate:  https://youtu.be/26cNpMEqqb0
Trevor Macenski, City Council Candidate: https://youtu.be/j7gtD4XqV1Q
Terry Scott, City Council Candidate:  https://youtu.be/pHaONqUlL6I

Good Neighbor Steering Committee Candidates’ Forum on Air Quality and Refinery Concerns, Benicia, Mon. Oct. 5

Press release, via email…

GNSC Candidates’ Forum, Benicia
Topic: Air Quality and Refinery concerns
Monday, Oct 5th, 2020, 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.
See Zoom link below…

We, the members of the Benicia Good Neighbor Steering Committee, cordially invite you to join us for an educational Benicia City Council and Mayoral Candidates’ forum on issues relating to Air Quality and Refinery concerns.

Candidates have been given 9 questions prior to this forum. The candidates will have 3 minutes to respond to each question. The Zoom forum will be recorded and links will be provided to the community for viewing later.

Marilyn Bardet, Mary Frances Kelly Poh, Nancy Lund,
Kathy Kerridge and Constance Beutel
Good Neighbor Steering Committee
(A refinery and community watch dog on community environmental health and safety issues)

Join Zoom Meeting
https://us02web.zoom.us/j/88625849949 ?pwd=Uk5EU09wRll0NlpGTFlRSEUrL2ZzQT09

Meeting ID: 886 2584 9949
Passcode: Local
One tap mobile
+16699006833,,88625849949#,,,,,,0#,,225810# US (San Jose)

For safe and healthy communities…