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.
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.”
Repost from MSNBC, Rachel Maddow Show [Editor: Incredible video footage of two early October train crashes, and excellent Rachel Maddow commentary. (Live video of the train crash at minute 2:10.) Apologies for the 20-second commercial ad that precedes the video. – RS]
Rachel Maddow reports on a train derailment and subsequent fire in Canada, which follows on the heels of a dramatic train crash in Louisiana as the oil and rail industries try to push back the deadline for new federal safetly requirements.
Repost from The Canadian Press [Editor: Every source I can find uses the phrase “petroleum distillates,” but no source further identifies the substance that caught fire and exploded. Is this a “news blackout”? …OCTOBER 8 UPDATE (CBC News) “According to the provincial government, of the six cars carrying hazardous materials, two had sodium hydroxide and two had hydrochloric acid. The other two had petroleum distillates, which included a Varsol-type substance.” …Still pretty sketchy.
Train derails in central Saskatchewan; village evacuated
By Clare Clancy, October 7, 2014
WADENA, Sask. — A CN freight train carrying dangerous goods derailed in central Saskatchewan Tuesday sending plumes of thick black smoke into the air and displacing residents of a tiny nearby hamlet.
The derailment happened near the community of Clair, which has a population of about 50. Police told those people to leave their homes and also evacuated farms near the scene.
CN spokesman Jim Feeny said the train was made up of three locomotives pulling 100 rail cars and that 26 of them derailed.
He said the fire came from petroleum distillates, which spilled from two of the derailed cars.
The fire had “diminished” as of Tuesday evening, Feeny said, but was still burning.
Clair is about 190 kilometres east of Saskatoon near the community of Wadena.
Alison Squires, who is the publisher of the Wadena News, went to the fire and said she has never seen anything like it in the 13 years she has lived in the area.
“I’ve seen derailments, but this is a pretty bad one,” she said. “You could see … this huge plume of black smoke. When I got there, there was a small explosion. The smoke is too thick to see what cars are involved.”
She added that there was a detour going north to pass the derailment, but not one going south.
“They are assuming the smoke is toxic,” she said.
A witness told radio station CKOM that the flames were at least 30 meters high at one point.
“The smoke is blowing from west to east and there is quite a bit of it,” Peter Baran told the station as he watched the fire from a highway.
Pictures from the scene suggested the derailment took place in a sparsely populated area. They showed the smoke billowing high into the sky.
The Transportation Safety Board said it was deploying a team of investigators to the site. CN sent in a hazardous materials team to clean up the area.
The railway industry has been under increased scrutiny since July 2013, when 47 people died after a train carrying oil derailed and exploded in downtown Lac-Megantic, Que.
Adam Scott, a spokesman for the advocacy group Environmental Defence, said Canada is experiencing a boom in the use of railways to transport petroleum products.
“The freight rail lines actually go right through the centre of almost every major urban centre in the entire country including small towns, communities across the country, so the risk of accidents is significant,” he said.
“The government has introduced measures, but they don’t go nearly far enough in terms of safety.”
He said rail companies are not required to publicly disclose the types of hazardous materials being transported on trains.
“It’s unacceptable,” he said. “The municipalities themselves, the communities have no power, no control, and in this case no information even over what’s being run through the rail lines.”
In August, the Transportation Safety Board issued a report into the Lac-Megantic tragedy that called for improved safety measures and cited inadequate oversight by Transport Canada. One of the criticisms brought forward was a lack of inspections.
Harry Gow, president of advocacy group Transport Action Canada, said the derailment in Saskatchewan shows the need for more inspectors.
“I would say that if one wants to ensure safety in moving hazardous goods, one has to have inspectors who are empowered to do the work, that are trained to do more than just check the company’s paperwork, and are sufficiently numerous and well-resourced to get out on the ground and see what’s going on,” he said.
“The incident in Saskatchewan today is fortunately not occurring in a large town,” he said. “But that doesn’t excuse the lack of oversight by Transport Canada.”