Category Archives: Smoke

Smoke from California fires may have killed more than 1,000 people

SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA – AUGUST 19: Smoke blankets the area from local fires in San Jose, Calif., on Wednesday, August 19, 2020. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)

Vallejo Times-Herald, by Paul Rogers, September 25, 2020

Heavy smoke from wildfires that choked much of California in recent weeks was more than an annoyance.

It was deadly. And it almost certainly killed more people than the flames from the massive fires themselves, health experts say.

Between Aug. 1 and Sept. 10, the historically bad concentrations of wildfire smoke were responsible for at least 1,200 and possibly up to 3,000 deaths in California that otherwise would not have occurred, according to an estimate by researchers at Stanford University. Those fatalities were among people 65 and older, most of whom were living with pre-existing medical conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and respiratory ailments.

By comparison, through Wednesday, 26 people have died directly in wildfires this year statewide.

“Clean air is much more important than we realize,” said Marshall Burke, an associate professor of earth system science at Stanford who calculated the impacts. “When you look at it on a population level, you can see very clearly that breathing clean air has huge public health benefits, and breathing dirty air has disastrous consequences.”

Decades of medical research has shown that soot is among the most dangerous types of air pollution. Known as “PM 2.5,” for particulate matter that is smaller than 2.5 microns, the microscopic soot particles are so small that it would take 30 or more to span the width of a human hair.

Generated by diesel trucks, power plants, fireplaces and other sources, the tiny particles can travel deep into the lungs, even entering the bloodstream, when people breathe them in high concentrations.

In mild levels they cause itchy eyes and sore throats, coughing and a tight feeling in the chest. In more severe instances, they can trigger asthma attacks, heart attacks, strokes or respiratory failure, particularly in the elderly, infants and people with heart and lung problems.

Smoke levels broke all-time records in California. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District called 30 “Spare the Air” days in a row from Aug. 18 to Sept. 16. Soot levels exceeded federal health standards for 19 days. Air quality was even worse in the Sierra, the Sacramento Valley and parts of Southern California, where it reached 10 to 15 times the federal health standard. On Sept. 9, smoke turned the air across Northern California an apocalyptic orange.

Burke and Sam Heft-Neal, a research scholar at Stanford’s Center on Food Security and the Environment, looked at a study published last year that used Medicare data to show that when levels of particulate pollution increased around the United States, the death rate of people 65 and older also increased, as did emergency room visits.

That study, by researchers at the University of Illinois and Georgia State University, found that for each day particulate air pollution increased by about 10% over typical levels — or 1 microgram per cubic meter — there was an increase in deaths and emergency room visits among people over 65 during the next three days.

California has roughly 6 million people older than 65. The Stanford researchers compared air pollution readings during California’s fires with increased death rates and emergency room rates from the previous study. They concluded at least 1,200 “excess deaths” occurred from Aug. 1 to Sept. 10 in California, along with about 4,800 extra emergency room visits.

“These are hidden deaths,” Burke said. “These are people who were probably already sick but for whom air pollution made them even sicker.”

Burke noted Stanford’s analysis doesn’t include young children or people under 65 with serious respiratory or heart conditions.

Other researchers say they generally support Stanford’s conclusions.

“It makes total sense,” said Dr. John Balmes, a professor of medicine at UC San Francisco and a member of the California Air Resources Board. “It should give us pause.”

In recent days, Bay Area air has cleared. But there is still at least another month of fire season.

Balmes and other experts say it’s important when people can smell smoke outdoors that they go inside and close doors and windows. On very smoky days, towels, masking tape or painter’s tape can block leaks. Air purifiers and wearing N95 or KN95 masks also can help.

“I don’t want to panic people who are healthy and without pre-existing disease, but we should reduce exposure as much as possible,” Balmes said. “You should stay indoors and not be outside any more than you have to be. Exercising outdoors when the air quality is bad is particularly problematic.”

The big unanswered question is whether exposure to thick wildfire smoke has long-term effects on healthy people. A study published this summer by the University of Montana found that of 95 people who lived in the small town of Seeley Lake near Missoula — where wildfire smoke choked the area for 49 days in 2017 — roughly one-third had compromised lung function two years later.

Other studies of wildland firefighters are ongoing. But the public and media often pay more attention to flames than smoke, because we’ve evolved that way, said Dr. Anthony Harris, medical director at WorkCare, a health care company based in Anaheim.

“Those things that are immediate we see and are alarmed by,” he said of the flames. “But studies show that fear only lasts for about two weeks in terms of behavior modification. So the notion that I might have a poor outcome in 15 years because of the smoke I am inhaling today just doesn’t cause a rise in the awareness of people.”

Year of calamities taking toll on mental health

Mental health professional: “In the past two weeks, my practice has exploded.”

San Francisco Chronicle, by Steve Rubenstein and Nora Mishanec, Sep. 11, 2020
Michael Waddell, a professional dog walker, out in Alamo Square Friday. He said the loss of dog-walking business has caused him more stress than the recent meteorological calamities.
Michael Waddell, a professional dog walker, out in Alamo Square Friday. He said the loss of dog-walking business has caused him more stress than the recent meteorological calamities. Photo: Nora Mishanec / The Chronicle

In a year of wondering what could possibly come next, the next things just keep on coming.

After eight months, they’re starting to add up, say mental health experts. And there’s lots of 2020 left, plenty of time for more next things.

“I’ve been hearing the word ‘apocalyptic’ a lot,” said San Francisco psychiatrist Scott Lauze. “I’m doing a tremendous amount of hand-holding these days. You can’t even rely on the color of the sky anymore.”

Lauze, in private practice for three decades, said he had never seen the call for his services take off like right now.

“In the past two months, there was a significant uptick in demand,” he said. “In the past two weeks, my practice has exploded.”

Pandemic, social unrest, heat waves. Wildfires. Smoke. Mass evacuations. Therapists call them stressors, and there has been no shortage of things to get stressed over.

And this just in: ash raining from the heavens, and darkness at noon.

“I couldn’t fall asleep,” said San Francisco nurse Valieree MacGlaun, who works the night shift and was walking home Friday on Divisadero Street from the VA hospital in her scrubs.

She said she feels overwhelmed, though her job is to help other people overcome feeling overwhelmed.

“This is my calling,” she said. “But you have to take care of yourself.”

Connie and Michael VonDohlen flew from their home in Tennessee to San Francisco on Wednesday to attend their daughter’s wedding, just in time for the dark orange daytime skies that made some locals say it felt like living on Mars. Streets were deserted. The VonDohlens, who don’t seem to shock easily, said they were shocked.

“We thought we had gone into the Twilight Zone,” Michael VonDohlen said. “I was expecting zombies to jump out from every doorway.”

“The fires, added to the pandemic, and the inability to escape — all that adds to the potential for hopelessness,” said emergency room psychiatrist Yener Balan, head of behavioral health services at Kaiser Permanente Northern California.

Calamity and malaise are part of the human condition, he said, and pondering the world wars endured by prior generations can put a virus or a wildfire in perspective.

Coronavirus live updates: SF urges people to stay inside due…
“As a species, we are resilient,” he said. “Many generations have seen this level of calamity.”

Taking care of oneself, living in the moment, checking in with family and friends, getting enough exercise and sleep — those are the keys to coping, Balan said. And turning off the TV and the computer when enough is enough — that helps, too. It also reduces exposure to the added stresses of a national election and its apocalyptic nuances.

“Just when you think you’re beginning to deal with one disaster, another one comes along,” said David Spiegel, a psychiatry professor at Stanford University. “Patients who have been stable are experiencing an exacerbation of depression and anxiety.”

The year 2020, he said, is turning out to be a “remarkable test of everyone’s ability to cope.”

Trying to cope in Alamo Square, while holding three dogs on a leash, was professional dog walker Michael Waddell. He used to wear a plain mask, for the virus. Now he wears a mask with an air filter, for the virus and the smoke. Different disaster, different mask.

Two in 5 U.S. adults say they are “struggling with mental health or substance abuse” since the pandemic hit, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the “prevalence of symptoms of anxiety disorder” were triple those of last year, the report added.

Even if psychiatrists are doing more business these days, Waddell said, dog walkers aren’t. Business has largely fallen off as people staying home can walk their own dogs.

Waddell’s usual complement of dogs is six. Losing half his income, Waddell said, “has added more to my immediate stress than the smoke or the wildfires.”

Dogs, who have no problem living in the moment, help. So do hobbies, said Melissa Smith, who was waiting for 5-McAllister bus. She said her therapy was to try “old lady hobbies.”

“This is the perfect excuse to take up knitting,” she said. “It’s a good outlet for the frustration. You need something to channel your energy.”

Smith was on her way home, where the knitting was waiting.

“What better place to practice peace than the middle of a storm?” she said. “I just think, after this, we are all going to be so resilient.”

Residents concerned about smoke; officials ‘let it burn’

March 19, 2019, 3:15pm Pacific Time

2 Updates on petrochemical plant fire in Texas…

40 mins ago

… are concerned about the air quality and possible negative effects of the smoke plume moving across the city …

 


No timetable for end to fire at Texas chemical facility – CBS7

1 hour ago – Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said at a news conference that monitors show … The school districts in Deer Park and in nearby La Porte canceled classes on …

ALSO, from Google…

Photos: A massive petrochemical fire in Texas will burn for days

Quartz7 hours ago – A massive fire at a Texas petrochemical storage terminal will continue to burn … and toluene at Intercontinental Terminals Company in Deer Park, near Houston.

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NBC 5 Dallas-Fort Worth4 hours ago

Deer Park plant fire: How the weather impacts growing smoke plume

Houston Chronicle3 hours ago

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Houstonia Magazine5 hours ago

Houston chemical fire: Huge flames seen engulfing plant in Deer Park

BBC News9 hours ago

Massive refinery fire in Texas left to burn itself out

Repost from The Houston Chronicle
[Editor: Benicia’s worst nightmare…  – R.S.]

To Deer Park residents, fire a reminder of ‘like living on a fault line’

Samantha Ketterer and Emily Foxhall March 18, 2019 Updated: March 18, 2019 4:37 p.m.
Petrochemical fire at the Intercontinental Terminals Company Monday, March 18, 2019, in Deer Park, Texas. | Photo: Godofredo A. Vasquez/Staff photographer

Jodie Thompson pulled over on Independence Parkway, less than a mile away from a petrochemical plant that was leaking plumes of black smoke into the sky.

In her 34 years living in Deer Park, she’d seen flares before. But this was different.

“I trust that they actually know what they’re doing, but inside, I have this doubt,” Thompson said Monday afternoon, watching the flames from inside the safety of her car.

The fire had raged at Intercontinental Terminals Company for more than 26 hours by the early afternoon and spread to eight holding tanks. Even after a shelter-in-place was lifted Monday morning, the fire was still expected to burn for two more days.

The ordeal, in some ways, was part of life in Deer Park, an east Harris County city of more than 33,000 people. Residents said they were familiar with the risks that come with living by the refineries and chemical plants. At a certain point, you have to stop worrying, they said.

“You can’t fret about it,” said Thompson, who is 60. “What are you going to do? You choose to live here.”

Holly Ball, 47, is a newer resident to Deer Park, having lived in the city for just a year. She’s noticed the puffing smoke stacks at the refineries, of course, but wasn’t aware of a threat like this, she said.

Like Thompson and many other residents on Monday, Ball parked her car to take photos of the smoke spreading miles west into Houston. She planned to send them to her friends in Louisiana.

“It’s scary,” she said. Her dog barked in the seat next to her. “It’s scary.”

On Facebook, people responded to official updates with more questions. They wanted to know more about what exactly was happening and what the risks were to their health.

Would the city of Deer Park be evacuated? Was it possible the plant would explode? The shelter-in-place had been in Deer Park, but what about people in the close-by city of Pasadena? And in La Porte?

Some people wrote of alarm sirens that should have gone off but haven’t worked for some time. Even with the shelter-in-place lifted, looking up at the sky, it was hard for many to believe air quality was fine. Some wrote of symptoms they were experiencing.

WHAT WE DISCOVERED: A HoustonChronicle.com investigation found dangerous chemicals create hidden dangers

One person said she had trouble breathing overnight. Two others wrote of burning sensations in their eyes. Another person decided to leave the area because their child was having trouble breathing. Some said they were simply nervous to sleep.

Bernice Oehrlein, 78, pushed a cart in the morning through the Food Town grocery store in Deer Park, about 5 miles southwest of the plant. She recently had a bad bout with pneumonia, so the fire is concerning for health reasons, she said.

“I have a hard time breathing anyways,” Oehrlein said.

At a Starbucks just down the road, Cindy Richards and her daughter drank coffee instead of going on their normal Monday walk.

Richards, a 67-year-old who lives in Pasadena, recalled the drive to Deer Park, before she realized a fire had clouded up the sky.

“I was like, ‘It’s a little overcast,'” she said. But then, “I come a little closer – ‘That’s smoke.'”

Richards doesn’t pay too much attention to the factories anymore, although she said they used to be more top-of-mind when she lived off of Sims Bayou, closer to some of the refineries.

Her daughter, 35-year-old Robyn French, lives close to the plant in Deer Park with her husband and two children. Flares, smoke and a gassy smell have become a normal occurrence, and she knows what to do in the case of an explosion.

But French knew better than to ignore the smoke on Monday, even though she said she felt fairly safe.

She made sure Sunday and Monday that her son wasn’t outside on his bike, breathing in anything possibly dangerous. And the unknown is still concerning.

“Am I still able to eat the Swiss chard and kale I’m growing in my garden?” she asked. “That’s a valid question to me. Will my oranges be full of chemicals when they’re full grown?”

IN THE AIR: What you need to know about the chemicals

Heather Trevino, 42, grew up in Deer Park and lives there now with her 9-year-old daughter. She said she had taken shelter before, but didn’t recall an incident as long and intense as this one.

Trevino saw the smoke rising above her neighbor’s roof Sunday. Her eyes and throat itched. When she got the alert to shelter-in-place, she knew to bring in her two dogs and shut off the A/C.

Trevino faintly heard the sound of the alarms that she said are tested every Saturday at noon. She put on some movies for her daughter, who also learned in school what to do when a shelter-in-place was ordered.

“We kind of get it ingrained in us,” Trevino said. “Living here, it’s just kind of part of what you accept, that there’s something that could possibly happen.”

Thompson likened it to an earthquake-prone area.

“It’s probably like living on a fault line,” she said. “It doesn’t happen very often, but the possibility is always there. In the back of your mind, you push it back. It’s out of your control.”

Anthony, a 36-year-old who works at a nearby plant, said he had to take the day off because of his workplace’s proximity to ITC. He declined to give his last name because of his employer.

While Anthony said he didn’t believe the air quality in the area is particularly bad because of the incident, he’s still concerned of the possibility of an explosion.

“It’s not anything that can really be taken lightly,” he said. “There is a flash point.”