Tag Archives: Health impacts

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)

Safety warning from British Health & Safety Executive

Repost from Health & Safety Executive (HSE), Great Britain
[Editor: CONTEXT – I received this in an  email from Fred Millar,  independent consultant and expert on chemical safety and railroad transportation.  Fred’s email comment puts the British commentary in a “North American oil-train” perspective:  “Impact of falling oil prices may be quite small re volumes of Crude By Rail shipments, some informed observers have noted.  But this UK HSE message highlights a likely, less visible but no less ominous impact: dangerous lowering of safety standards in the oil industry [and by implication in the newly important “pipeline on rails” railroads carrying crude oil and other hazmat].  If this impact had not been seen previously at significant levels by safety agencies, there would be no need for such blunt alarums, of course.”  – RS]

No Compromise

By Judith Hackitt, HSE Chair, 2/6/15

The impacts of falling oil prices is having a wide ranging effect in the UK – from the lower cost of filling up the car to people’s livelihoods being under threat.

It is inevitable companies seek to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances and the decisions they are being forced to make are tough ones. It’s actually a stress test of leadership and senior management.

Part of that test is whether company decision makers have all the relevant information to make informed decisions.

How can they?

At the very least they have to make assumptions about what the future will look like. In this case, how long oil prices will stay at these levels? What decisions are competitor companies and industries taking? After all, they need to be making the right decisions for the company in the short term and for the mid to long term.

We’ve been here before, of course, in the 1990s when oil prices dropped and assumptions were made about the long term life of North Sea assets that proved to be wide of the mark. So this is a time when corporate memory really counts.

On that occasion the assumption was made that North Sea production would be wound down in the medium term and assets could afford to be neglected because they would soon be out of service. As prices rose again, the assets were called upon to continue to produce and many are now operating well beyond their original life expectancy. Doing that has required huge effort by the North Sea Oil and Gas industry to bring those neglected assets back up to the required standard.

Those who have led this effort to improve asset integrity deserve to be praised, but their voices need to continue to be heard as we go through this next difficult phase for the industry.

Cutting costs where there seems to be least tangible day-to-day effect is obviously tempting but leaders and senior managers need to pass the stress test on knowing where health and safety – and particularly process safety and asset integrity – sits in this mix.

Asset integrity must not suffer from short term expediency over where the axe falls. Leadership is critical to avoid wrong assumptions being made about the lifespan of assets, assumptions we know from previous experience can take years to reverse.

Current news headlines may be disconcerting, but I want all industries dealing with process safety to avoid inadvertently writing tomorrow’s headlines today.

Safety must not be compromised, even in tough times.

Bakken burn victims: Twin Cities hospitals are front line

Repost from The Star Tribune, Minneapolis MN

Twin Cities hospitals are front line in treating Bakken burn victims

There are no specialty centers near Bakken fields.

By Maya Rao, February 14, 2015
Kyle, 27, recovers at Regions Hospital after a fire on an oil site where he was working in the Bakken badly burned his legs. Photo: Maya Rao, Star Tribune

Flames seared the pants off Kyle’s legs as he raced across a bed of ruddy red rocks, screaming for help.

A pipe on a machine processing oil at high heat had burst, soaking him in methanol and sparking a fire.

“You could just feel it cooking my legs,” he said. “It almost sounded like chicken frying in an oiler.”

Hours later, Kyle woke up at Regions Hospital in St. Paul last month, after a 600-mile plane ride from the oil fields of North Dakota. His legs were burned so deeply that the bottom layer of skin would never grow back. It was the worst pain he’d ever felt.

Burn injuries among North Dakota workers have surged to more than 3,100 over the past five years, as the once nearly barren prairies have become the epicenter of a massive oil-drilling boom. Despite the flammability of Bakken crude and the danger of oil-rig work, North Dakota has no burn centers. The Twin Cities is the closest place to go for patients like Kyle, 27, who agreed to be interviewed on the condition that his last name not be used.

While other kinds of injuries may be more common, oil field burns are among the most painful and costly to treat. An oil field worker’s treatment at a burn unit can cost $1 million.

“The burns from the oil fields can be pretty dramatic,” said Bill Mohr, a surgeon at Regions.

Just 17 percent of North Dakota residents can be transported by air or ground to a burn center within two hours — fewer than every state but Alaska and Montana. The extra time it takes to move patients poses a medical challenge, since care administered in the first day factors into burn patients’ long-term recovery.

Mohr said oil field burns are three or four times bigger than those of the average patient and that Bakken burn victims who come in to Regions are more likely to need ventilators.

One died after arriving with 98 percent of his body burned. Some needed limbs amputated and had burns that bore down into the bone. Many never returned to the oil fields.

Shortage of burn doctors

Hospitals nationwide have been closing burn units and are grappling with a shortage of burn doctors. States with low populations, like the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, have not been able to justify opening such expensive, specialized facilities.

When a truck carrying crude crashes and explodes, or an oil rig blows out, burn victims are initially taken to a hospital in the Bakken. The staff assesses whether the burns are severe enough to fly them to burn centers in the Twin Cities, Salt Lake City or Denver.

Gary Ramage, medical director at McKenzie County Healthcare Systems in North Dakota, said he sends patients out of state if the burns affect their respiratory system, face or hands — the most difficult areas to treat — and at least 10 percent of their body.

Oilfield workers are brought to Regions almost once a month, including a patient last month who had been working on an oil heater near Mandaree, N.D., that ignited. He died.

Another dozen Bakken burn victims have been treated at the Hennepin County Medical Center in the last three or so years, according to its burn unit director, Ryan Fey.

HCMC paid closer attention to oil field burns after a train carrying Bakken crude derailed in Casselton, N.D., 13 months ago. While no one was injured, members of the medical staff are examining how they would address an oil train accident that caused mass burn injuries.

“That’s become more and more of an issue because we have all these Bakken oil trains that come rolling through just one after another,” Fey said.

Bakken hospitals are looking at how to improve burn care. Two nurses at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Dickinson, N.D., recently traveled to a Galveston, Texas, hospital to learn burn management techniques. And doctors at Regions regularly travel to the Bakken to talk to medical staff about treating burns in the early stages.

Serious oil field burns destroy what’s known as the dermis, or the thicker, second layer of skin that contains blood vessels and sweat glands. Burn doctors excise the damaged skin to prevent infections. Then they apply bioengineered tissue made of cow collagen and shark cartilage to function as the new dermis. They harvest the top layer of skin from a healthy part of the body and graft it over the artificial skin tissue.

Even after recovering from those surgeries, patients must still do months or years of physical therapy to fix the loss of flexibility in their skin. And then there is the emotional recovery: Severe burn patients can face post-traumatic stress disorder on par with soldiers.

Lighting a cigar

Advances in burn treatment mean that some oil workers who would have died a decade or two ago now have a chance.

One is Casey Malmquist. The head of a Whitefish, Mont., construction company, Malmquist came to the Bakken to build housing for oil workers. In July 2013, he stepped onto the deck of one of the newly finished homes for Halliburton employees and leaned over to light a cigar.

There was a whoosh and then an explosion. He flew off the deck. His shirt, he recalled, lit up like a lantern.

The cause appeared to be leaking propane gas that had not been properly odorized to alert him that he was near a flammable substance. He fell into a coma and woke up three weeks later at Regions, 68 percent of his body burned. The Bemidji native, then 56, seemed destined to die.

But after three months at Regions and many surgeries, Malmquist returned to Montana. He still goes to physical therapy daily and hasn’t returned to some of the activities he once loved, like hockey, because his skin is fragile and managing his body temperature is difficult.

He said living in his new body “is like wearing a wet suit that’s five times too small, and there’s ground glass between you and the wet suit.”

In November, Minneapolis attorney Fred Pritzker sued Horizontal Resources on Malmquist’s behalf, claiming the company was negligent in not odorizing the propane.


Kyle moved to Williston, N.D., in 2011 with his pregnant wife, Shawna, after he was laid off as a plumber in Helena, Mont.

He found work as a maintenance roustabout, checking oil tanks, pumping units, well heads and other equipment.

Last month, Kyle and a co-worker went to an oil pad just south of Ross, N.D., and noticed a unit by the oil treater was frozen. Oil treaters separate oil from water and gas before it moves to storage tanks. After they worked to thaw it with water from a hot oil truck, Kyle said he tried to fix a misplaced valve.

A pipe blew out and soaked him with gas. It was so uncomfortable that he took off the flame-retardant pants over his jeans just before a fire ignited.

Several men who saw Kyle ablaze tackled him and blasted him with a fire extinguisher, ordering him to roll on the ground.

As the ambulance took him to a hospital in Stanley to be stabilized, Kyle said he thought, “How am I going to support my family now?”

He woke up in Regions with a breathing tube, his legs stapled and wrapped in casts.

Kyle can walk; he strode down the hall to pick up Forrest Gump from the hospital’s movie selection after his wife joked that she’d make him watch Titanic. But it hurts.

As OSHA investigates, Kyle said he doesn’t blame his company and considers it a freak accident. He hopes to get his old job back one day.

Memories of the fire shake him. “I keep having nightmares about it,” Kyle said. “I’ve been trying to take a nap all day and … I jump and think that I’m back in the fire.”

New York Governor Cuomo bans fracking

Repost from The New York Times
[Editor: this week saw dramatic action on the part of two US governors.  See also Washington Gov. Inslee: Make big polluters pay for transportation projects.  – RS]

Citing Health Risks, Cuomo Bans Fracking in New York State

By Thomas Kaplandec, Dec. 17, 2014
Members of New Yorkers Against Fracking celebrated the governor’s decision outside his Manhattan office on Wednesday. Credit Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s administration announced on Wednesday that it would ban hydraulic fracturing in New York State because of concerns over health risks, ending years of debate over a method of extracting natural gas.

Fracking, as it is known, was heavily promoted as a source of economic revival for depressed communities along New York’s border with Pennsylvania, and Mr. Cuomo had once been poised to embrace it.

Instead, the move to ban fracking left him acknowledging that, despite the intense focus he has given to solving deep economic troubles afflicting large areas upstate, the riddle remained largely unsolved. “I’ve never had anyone say to me, ‘I believe fracking is great,’ ” he said. “Not a single person in those communities. What I get is, ‘I have no alternative but fracking.’ ”

In a double blow to areas that had anticipated a resurgence led by fracking, a state panel on Wednesday backed plans for three new Las Vegas-style casinos, but none along the Pennsylvania border in the Southern Tier region. The panel, whose advice Mr. Cuomo said would quite likely be heeded, backed casino proposals in the Catskills, near Albany and between Syracuse and Rochester.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo listened to a presentation on fracking at a cabinet meeting in Albany on Wednesday. Credit Mike Groll/Associated Press

For Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, the decision on fracking — which was immediately hailed by environmental and liberal groups — seemed likely to help repair his ties to his party’s left wing. It came after a surprisingly contentious re-election campaign in which Zephyr Teachout, a primary challenger who opposed fracking, won about a third of the vote.

The question of whether to allow fracking, which involves injecting large amounts of water, sand and chemicals deep underground at high pressures to release oil and natural gas from rock formations, has been one of the most divisive public policy debates in New York in years. Fracking is occurring in many states, and has boomed in places like Pennsylvania and Texas. Environmental advocates, alarmed by the growth of the practice, pointed to New York’s decision as the first ban by a state with significant natural-gas resources.

Mr. Cuomo, who has prided himself on taking swift and decisive action on other contentious issues like gun control, took the opposite approach on fracking. He repeatedly put off making a decision, most recently citing a continuing — and seemingly open-ended — study by state health officials.

On Wednesday, six weeks after Mr. Cuomo won a second term, the long-awaited health study finally materialized, its findings made public during a year-end cabinet meeting convened by the governor in Albany.

In a presentation at the cabinet meeting, the acting state health commissioner, Dr. Howard A. Zucker, said the examination had found “significant public health risks” associated with fracking.

Holding up copies of scientific studies to animate his arguments, Dr. Zucker listed concerns about water contamination and air pollution, and said there was insufficient scientific evidence to affirm the safety of fracking.

Dr. Zucker said his review boiled down to a simple question: Would he want his family to live in a community where fracking was taking place?

CLICK TO OPEN Document Health Department Report on Fracking in New York State The Cuomo administration decided to ban hydraulic fracturing after concluding that the method posed inestimable public-health risks.

His answer was no.

“We cannot afford to make a mistake,” he said. “The potential risks are too great. In fact, they are not even fully known.”

New York has had a de facto ban on fracking for over six years, predating Mr. Cuomo’s election. In 2012, he flirted with approving a limited program in several Southern Tier counties. But that same year, he bowed to entreaties from environmental advocates, stating instead that his administration would begin a new study on health risks.

Mr. Cuomo had focused much of his attention on trying to improve the economic climate upstate, and fracking appeared to offer a solution to struggling areas atop the Marcellus Shale, a gas-rich rock formation that extends across parts of several states, including New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

But there was also strong opposition from groups worried about the effects of fracking on the state’s water supply, as well as on tourism and the quality of life in small upstate communities.

As he traveled around the state, Mr. Cuomo was hounded by protesters opposed to fracking, who showed up at his events and pressed him to impose a statewide ban. Opponents were also aided by celebrities who drew attention to their cause.

Complicating matters, dozens of communities across New York have passed moratoriums and bans on fracking, and in June, the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, ruled that towns could use zoning ordinances to ban fracking.

The acting state health commissioner, Howard Zucker, speaking at the meeting. Credit Mike Groll/Associated Press

Local bans, on top of restrictions that the state had planned, put 63 percent of the Marcellus Shale off limits to drilling, said Joseph Martens, the state environmental conservation commissioner. “The economic benefits are clearly far lower than originally forecast,” he said.

On Wednesday, Mr. Cuomo seemed determined to portray both of the day’s major announcements — and their consequences for upstate New York — as decisions made by experts objectively weighing the facts, not by him.

At the cabinet meeting, he conspicuously stumbled on the name of the panel that made the casino recommendations, as if to signal his lack of involvement in its work. And he kept some distance from the fracking decision, saying he was deferring to his health and environmental conservation commissioners.

“I am not a scientist,” he said. “I’m not an environmental expert. I’m not a health expert. I’m a lawyer. I’m not a doctor. I’m not an environmentalist. I’m not a scientist. So let’s bring the emotion down, and let’s ask the qualified experts what their opinion is.”

Nevertheless, environmental groups cast the governor as a hero. Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club, said, “This move puts significant pressure on other governors to take similar measures to protect people who live in their states.”

Fracking supporters accused Mr. Cuomo of giving in to environmentalists’ efforts to stoke public fears.

Karen Moreau, the executive director of the New York State Petroleum Council, attributed the fracking ban to a decision by the governor “that he wants to align himself with the left.”

“Our citizens in the Southern Tier have had to watch their neighbors and friends across the border in Pennsylvania thriving economically,” she said. “It’s like they were a kid in a candy store window, looking through the window, and not able to touch that opportunity.”

Correction: December 17, 2014
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article incompletely described hydraulic fracturing. It is a method of extracting natural gas or oil, not just oil, from deep underground. The error was repeated in the summary.


For safe and healthy communities…