Category Archives: Wildfires

Wildfire health study – lingering breathing problems after widespread smoke

Repost from REVEAL NEWS, The Center for Investigative Reporting

AMERICA’S RING OF FIRE

The smoke’s gone, but hearts and lungs still may be in danger months after wildfires

By Aaron Glantz and Susie Neilson / November 28, 2018
Pedestrians wear masks while walking through San Francisco’s Financial District on Nov. 9. For two weeks after the Camp Fire ignited, the air in Northern California, stretching as far as 200 miles from the flames, was so full of smoke that it was deemed unhealthy to breathe. Credit: Eric Risberg/Associated Press

Three days after the Camp Fire erupted, incinerating the Northern California town of Paradise and killing 85 people, Katrina Sawa found herself struggling to breathe.

If you or someone you know has had breathing problems or heart problems or had to seek medical care in the wake of the recent fires, we want to hear from you. Text “fire” to 63735 and follow the prompts, or reach out to reporter Aaron Glantz at aglantz@revealnews.org.

But Sawa wasn’t anywhere near Paradise. She lives almost 100 miles away in Roseville, a suburb northeast of Sacramento. Sawa puffed on her emergency asthma inhaler over and over again.

“Usually, I use it once a month,” said Sawa, a 48-year-old businesses coach who has had asthma since she was 13. “After using it four times in one day, I knew it was time to go to urgent care.” There, doctors had her inhale a powerful steroid medication to soothe her inflamed airways.

For two weeks after the fire ignited, the air in Northern California, stretching as far as 200 miles from the flames, was so full of smoke that it was deemed unhealthy to breathe, especially for people with heart and respiratory ailments.

But the health problems Sawa and others experienced while the blaze raged are just the beginning of effects that could plague people from Sacramento to the San Francisco Bay Area long after the smoke clears.

An analysis of hospital data by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting found that emergency room visits surged several months after a previous large wildfire was extinguished.

Three to five months after the 37,000-acre Tubbs Fire in Napa and Sonoma valleys in October 2017, the region’s emergency rooms treated about 20 percent more patients for respiratory and cardiac ailments compared with previous years, according to the analysis, which used state data. At the time, the Tubbs Fire was the most destructive in California history, killing 22 people and destroying nearly 6,000 structures.

Seven of nine hospitals in Napa and Sonoma counties reported either significantly or slightly more cardiovascular and respiratory cases from January through March 2018 compared with the same period in 2016 and 2017. For instance, at Kaiser Permanente Santa Rosa Medical Center in Sonoma County’s largest city, emergency room visits for respiratory problems jumped by 570, or 37 percent, from January through March 2018 compared with the same period in 2017. Twenty miles down Highway 101 at Petaluma Valley Hospital, heart cases increased by 61 patients, or 50 percent.

Medical experts say these findings raise troubling questions about the long-term health effects of wildfires, which, worsened by drought and global warming, are raging across the West.

The life-threatening effects of smoke disproportionately harm the elderly, children and low-income people of color. More than 2.3 million adults and 644,000 children in California have asthma and another 1.7 million suffer from heart disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and California Department of Public Health. Adult asthma rates are highest for multiracial people and African Americans, while heart ailments tend to afflict the state’s poorest and least educated residents across all racial groups.

Reveal’s analysis does not take into account other factors that might have driven up the emergency room visits, such as other pollutants or the weather. But the conclusion is in line with a growing body of research thathas found more people suffer respiratory problems and heart attacks within days of being exposed to wildfire smoke.

“The uptick in ER visits is very consistent” with scientific research about smoke, said Dr. Kari Nadeau, director of Stanford University’s Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy and Asthma Research.

Dr. John Balmes, a pulmonologist and professor at the University of California San Francisco who studies air pollution, is not surprised that emergency room visits increased three months after the wine country fire.

“People with asthma, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and other lung diseases could have persistent exacerbations,” he said, adding that inhaling ash could have longer-term consequences, too. The effects of smoke months or years after a fire are not well understood.

There was only a slight increase in immediate emergency room visits during the days when last year’s Tubbs Fire burned. That’s because two of the largest hospitals were evacuated and a third was destroyed. As a result, the analysis was based on the period three to five months later, using data from California’s Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development.

Busier ERs in Bay Area, Sacramento

This month’s Camp Fire – the deadliest and largest in California history – was more than four times bigger than the Tubbs Fire. Throughout much of the Bay Area and Sacramento area, the smoke was so intense and widespread that many people wore masks, stayed indoors and bought air purifiers. At least two Northern California hospitals have reported busier ERs due to smoke from the fire, which burned 153,000 acres in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.

Robin Scott, director of the emergency department at Adventist Health Clear Lake, reported a 43 percent increase in respiratory diagnoses when the smoke hung over the region compared with the two previous weeks.

In Berkeley, 160 miles from the fire, Sutter Health’s Alta Bates Summit Medical Center treated “increasing numbers of patients with chief complaints that appear to be connected to the poor air quality,” including “asthma, eczema, respiratory illness – as well as worsening heart conditions like congestive heart failure and chest pain,” said Dr. Ronn Berrol, medical director of the emergency department.

Other hospitals in the region, however, reported small increases, while some, including Kaiser Permanente in Oakland, reported no increases.

“There has been a slight uptick in terms of patients coming through our ER with respiratory issues. Most have been quickly treated and discharged,” said William Hodges, director of communications at Dignity Health in Sacramento. “I would say the impact has been minimal at most.”

Francesca Dominici, a biostatistics professor at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said understanding the health effects is critical because climate change is making fires more frequent, ferocious, erratic and long lasting.

Dominici was on a team of researchers that published a study last year that collected data from wildfires across the West between 2004 and 2009 and compared it with hospitalizations of elderly residents. About 22 percent more African Americans 65 and older were hospitalized for respiratory problems on smoky days than on non-smoky days. For elderly women of all races, respiratory hospitalizations increased more than 10 percent on smoky days, and for elderly men, 4 percent.

Five of the 10 largest wildfires in California history have occurred in the last two years, and many of the state’s largest population centers have been exposed to smoke repeatedly.

Dominici said the impacts are likely cumulative.

“More people are becoming susceptible to air pollution because they have been breathing bad air from previous wildfires,” she said. “For these people, the risk of adverse health effects is going to be even larger than the rest of the population.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency researchers, in a study published in April, examined more than a million emergency room visits during California’s 2015 fire season and found a 42 percent increase in heart attacks among adults over 65 on days with dense wildfire smoke. They also found increases in strokes and other cardiovascular effects.

The EPA researchers expressed a willingness to speak about their research, but the agency would not grant permission.

Tiny particles harm hearts, lungs

A major health concern is the makeup of the smoke. Fires emit clouds of fine particles known as PM2.5. For decades, researchers have shown that whenever these tiny particles – which largely come from vehicles and other sources of fuel combustion – increase in the air, deaths and hospitalizations from heart attacks and respiratory problems rise. The particles can irritate airways, travel deep into the lungs and disrupt the heart.

In addition, fires can emit toxic gases from a variety of sources, including oil, metals and pesticides.

Among the estimated 19,000 buildings destroyed in the Camp Fire were gas stations, two grocery stores, eight schools and a hotel.

“When you’re breathing smoke from that wildfire,” said Stanford’s Nadeau, “you’re breathing paint thinner, Drano, plastics, heavy metals and burned leaves, which are very similar to tobacco.”

The long-term effects of breathing this cocktail are unknown.

A firefighter searches for human remains in a trailer park destroyed by the Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif.CREDIT: JOHN LOCHER/ASSOCIATED PRESS

In Palo Alto, 200 miles from the Camp Fire, pediatrician Dr. Kellen Glinder said he has seen a marked increase in number of children with breathing problems during each of California’s recent wildfires.

On Friday, after rain cleared much of the wildfire smoke, the waiting room at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, a clinic where Glinder works, wasn’t as busy as it was in previous days. Several children sat or crawled around as a television played “Toy Story” overhead. But Glinder said he still was treating kids affected by the smoke.

About one-third of the 20 children he treated each day during the fires – six to eight kids per day – had conditions the smoke exacerbated, Glinder said.

“We (saw) a lot of things hidden under the guise of a cold that wouldn’t have gotten worse unless the air quality was so bad,” he said.

In August, when the Mendocino Complex Fire blazed through the state, Glinder treated more patients with asthma and other conditions. And last year, the Santa Rosa fires brought similar health concerns.

“Each forest fire is going to have its own particular combination of chemicals, depending on what’s getting incinerated and blowing our way,” he said. “With this particular fire, I saw a lot more … skin irritation, headaches and nausea than I had seen in prior forest fires.”

The waiting room had a box of miniature paper masks for the kids, decorated with Mickey Mouse heads. Glinder, however, said such flimsy masks are ineffective at protecting people from smoke’s particles and gases; they are designed to contain germs from colds and flu.

Like the elderly, children are particularly sensitive to soot and smoke.

“Children’s lungs are still growing, their nervous systems are still growing,” Glinder said. “That makes them more susceptible to these pollutants.”

This story was edited by Marla Cone and copy edited by Nikki Frick.

Aaron Glantz can be reached at aglantz@revealnews.org, and Susie Neilson can be reached at susancneilson@gmail.com. Follow them on Twitter:@Aaron_Glantz and @susieneilson.

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      GAO: Climate change already costing U.S. billions in losses

      Repost from the Los Angeles Daily News
      [Editor: This came to us in an E-Alert from Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson, who wrote, “The red lights are flashing – hottest summers and fall, greatest hurricane force, worst fires in history of California, lives lost, air pollution killing millions, and all of this is costing us billions… …rising sea level will affect structures near the Benicia waterfront at 6 feet above current sea level.  Our water (sewer) will be affected by rising sea level before 2050.  Our water supply may be uncertain.  We can mitigate and adapt….”  – RS]

      US Government Accountability Office: Climate change already costing U.S. billions in losses

      By Michael Biesecker, Associated Press, October 23, 2017 8:13 pm
      california wildfires
      Sarah Boryszewski is helped by her father Gerald Peete as they dig for belongings in the remains of Boryszewski’s home in Coffey Park, Friday Oct. 20, 2017 in Santa Rosa, Calif. Northern California residents who fled a wildfire in the dead of night with only minutes to spare returned to their neighborhoods Friday for the first time in nearly two weeks to see if anything was standing. (Kent Porter/The Press Democrat via AP)

      WASHINGTON — A non-partisan federal watchdog says climate change is already costing U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars each year, with those costs expected to rise as devastating storms, floods, wildfires and droughts become more frequent in the coming decades.

      A Government Accountability Office report released Monday said the federal government has spent more than $350 billion over the last decade on disaster assistance programs and losses from flood and crop insurance. That tally does not include the massive toll from this year’s three major hurricanes and wildfires, expected to be among the most costly in the nation’s history.

      The report predicts these costs will only grow in the future, potentially reaching a budget busting $35 billion a year by 2050. The report says the federal government doesn’t effectively plan for these recurring costs, classifying the financial exposure from climate-related costs as “high risk.”

      “The federal government has not undertaken strategic government-wide planning to manage climate risks by using information on the potential economic effects of climate change to identify significant risks and craft appropriate federal responses,” the study said. “By using such information, the federal government could take the initial step in establishing government-wide priorities to manage such risks.”

      GAO undertook the study following a request from Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

      “This nonpartisan GAO report Senator Cantwell and I requested contains astonishing numbers about the consequences of climate change for our economy and for the federal budget in particular,” said Collins. “In Maine, our economy is inextricably linked to the environment. We are experiencing a real change in the sea life, which has serious implications for the livelihoods of many people across our state, including those who work in our iconic lobster industry.”

      The report’s authors reviewed 30 government and academic studies examining the national and regional impacts of climate change. They also interviewed 28 experts familiar with the strengths and limitations of the studies, which rely on future projections of climate impacts to estimate likely costs.

      The report says the fiscal impacts of climate change are likely to vary widely by region. The Southeast is at increased risk because of coastal property that could be swamped by storm surge and sea level rise. The Midwest and Great Plains are susceptible to decreased crop yields, the report said. The west is expected to see increased drought, wildfires and deadly heatwaves.

      Advance copies were provided to the White House and the Environmental Protection Agency, which provided no official comments for inclusion in the GAO report.

      Requests for comment from The Associated Press also received no response on Monday.

      President Donald Trump has called climate change a hoax, announcing his intent to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accords and revoke Obama-era initiatives to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Trump has also appointed officials such as EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, all of whom question the scientific consensus that carbon released into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels is the primary driver of global warming.

      Earlier this month Trump nominated Kathleen Hartnett White of Texas to serve as his top environmental adviser at the White House. She has credited the fossil fuel industry with “vastly improved living conditions across the world” and likened the work of mainstream climate scientists to “the dogmatic claims of ideologues and clerics.”

      White, who works at a conservative think tank that has received funding from fossil-fuel companies, holds academic degrees in East Asian studies and comparative literature.