(EnviroNews California) — Bon Tempe Dam, Marin County, California — Breathing the air during just one pollution spike for just one day can cause catastrophic health issues — even death, according to top medical experts on the topic. And seasonal air pollution, often driven by West Coast wildfires, is now becoming eerily persistent for U.S. residents from coast to coast. In an exclusive sit-down interview with EnviroNews, Representative Jared Huffman (D), California’s North Coast congressman, said the air pollution crisis is a “real thing.”
It’s gotten so bad over the past couple of weeks that several California and Oregon lawmakers teamed up and sounded the alarm, filing bills to help communities combat wildfire smoke. The Wildfire Smoke Emergency Declaration Act and the Smoke Planning and Research Act were introduced by Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Alex Padilla (D-CA), Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Ron Wyden (D-OR).
In a news release about the proposed legislation, Sen. Wyden gave a dire warning about the current crisis:
The infernos burning today are not your grandfather’s wildfires. They are burning bigger and hotter and bringing devastation to communities in their path. Look at the Bootleg Fire. It’s the largest wildfire currently burning nationwide, and it’s so big it’s creating its own weather patterns with its smoke [is] traveling all the way across the country.
The Wildfire Smoke Emergency Declaration Act would authorize the president to issue a “smoke emergency,” similar to a federal disaster area declaration after a hurricane or flood. It would allow federal agencies to give aid to states to install smoke monitors, shelters and help people relocate. The Small Business Administration (SBA) could help businesses cover lost revenue because of smoke as well.
The Smoke Planning and Research Act of 2021 would allocate federal funding to help communities come up with ways to mitigate smoke. The bill calls for giving $20 million to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to study the health impacts of wildfire smoke and to establish an EPA grant program to assist communities in planning for, and responding to, smoke. It would also fund four college or university-based “Centers of Excellence” to do further research.
Senators Merkley and Wyden also filed the Wildfire Smoke Relief Act to allocate federal emergency funding to people most at risk during bouts of poor air quality caused by fires, like the elderly, pregnant women and those with health issues. It calls for allowing FEMA to provide those same persons with low-cost home improvements, masks and air filters when wildfire smoke is responsible for unhealthy air for three consecutive days.
DANGEROUS SEASONAL AIR POLLUTION SPIKES: UTAH THE POSTER CHILD, BUT CALIFORNIA NOW CHALLENGING TO TOP THE LIST
Utah residents know about air pollution. They have a long history of battling spikes that have usually been a wintertime issue caused by inversions, oftentimes after a snowstorm. An inversion is when warm air rolls in and hovers above cooler air. The pollution from vehicles, fireplaces and industries can’t escape into the atmosphere, so it becomes trapped on the valley floor.
“The cold air just sits there, and it doesn’t move, doesn’t circulate. That’s when the storm track goes elsewhere, and the pollution builds up really quickly,” said Dr. Brian Moench MD. “The pollution doesn’t dissipate.” Moench is the Founder of the Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment (UPHE) – a non-profit group of over 430 Utah-based medical doctors who have been fighting for a cleaner environment and better air quality for more than a decade.
Dr. Brian Moench Organized and Emceed the Largest Air-Pollution-Specific Protest in U.S. History on Utah’s Capitol Hill — via EnviroNews Utah, 2014
The Utah Department of Environmental Quality’s (UDEQ) website said that mountains can also increase the strength of inversions in the valleys. The Wasatch Mountains, Oquirrh Mountains, and Traverse Mountains block the winds that could otherwise blow into the Salt Lake Valley and clear out the pollution. On average, the area has about 18 days a year when fine particle air pollution (PM2.5) levels exceed the National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS).
Salt Lake City School Children Protest Lawmakers at the State Capitol over ‘Red Air Days’ After Being Held in from Recess for Weeks — via EnviroNews Utah 2009
PM means “particulate matter;” the EPA’s website also calls it particle pollution and defines it as “a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets found in the air.” The smaller the particle the more hazardous they are. There’s PM10 which are particles less than 10 micrometers in diameter. The CDC’s website refers to these as coarse (bigger) particles which can irritate your eyes, nose and throat. These PM may come from dusty roads, construction sites and mines. But fine particles that are less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter (PM2.5) “are more dangerous because they can get into the deep parts of your lungs — or even into your blood.”
But now the increasing number of wildfires on the West Coast is causing summertime air pollution spikes from California to Utah to Boston. In a recent Tweet, the National Weather Service (NWS) sent out this animated graphic showing how smoke from wildfires burning in California and Oregon is causing pollution filled skies in Utah. And just this week, western wildfire smoke and ash swept over the entire country causing air quality warnings thousands of miles away in the Midwest and on the East Coast. The Associated Press (AP) published a picture of the haze hovering over Yankee Stadium in NYC before a recent baseball game. The article quoted NWS meteorologist David Lawrence who said wildfire smoke usually thins out by the time it reaches the East, but this summer it’s “still pretty thick.”
CALIFORNIA’S NEW SEASONAL AIR POLLUTION CONUNDRUM
Seasonal air quality issues are now plaguing California residents – a relatively new phenomenon, especially in Northern California’s rural countryside. Inversion contributes to some of the PM2.5 spikes, but research shows wildfires are pushing the pollution meter into the red. Several Golden State communities now top the American Lung Association’s list of most polluted cities by short-term particle pollution:
#1: Fairbanks, AK
#3: Bakersfield, CA
#5: Yakima, WA
#7: Logan, UT-ID
#9: Missoula, MT
Wildfire-fed air pollution has gotten so bad in some California communities that they have had to set up breathing centers — buildings with air conditioners and air filters to help people seek relief from the particulate filled air outside. Last year, in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, the city of Oakland opened up four “air respite” centers and another was opened in Alameda. Residents had to make a precarious choice: breathe the polluted air outside or go inside to a breathing center for cleaner air, but risk being exposed to the virus.
Rep. Huffman told EnviroNews breathing centers were also set up near the Hoopa Reservation in his district due to smoke and air pollution, saying, “There are their major fires in and around that place every single summer, and they’re in canyons where the inversion happens, and there’s nowhere to go,” he said.
Why are these air pollution spikes so dangerous? Dr. Moench told EnviroNews that for some people, just a single exposure to this kind of thick particulate contamination can be devastating. “If you have a one-day spike in air pollution in a large community, we’ll see mortality rates increase within a couple of days, but they won’t go back to normal for probably, in many cases, weeks.”
Dr. Ellie Brownstein of the UPHE Declares an Air Pollution Public Emergency on Utah’s Capitol Hill in 2013 — via EnviroNews Utah
What’s more, Dr. Monech said not many people realize how dangerous these upticks are. “It’s awful,” he said. “Most people think that once the air clears up from an air pollution spike, everything’s good to go, but that’s not the case. There are still biological consequences that linger long after.”
Dr. Brian Moench Gives Presentation on How Air Pollution Degrades Genes and Affects the Brain
So, what exactly comprises these fine particles? They can vary from toxic chemicals to metals, mold, wood, soil, and dust. Once inhaled into the human body, they can stick around for months, even a person’s entire lifetime. Researchers have found these particulates embedded in peoples’ hearts, brains and major organs. They’ve even been discovered in the umbilical cords and placentas of pregnant women. They have reached fetuses developing in the womb, which can result in health problems for children later in life. “We are basically air pollution warehouses,” Dr. Moench said. “We are literally contaminating our entire bodies with the air pollution that we all inhale.”
Fertility Specialist Dr. Kirtly Jones Discusses the Damage Caused to Fetuses by Air Pollution via EnviroNews Utah, 2013
CALIFORNIA’S MASSIVE, NEW, AIR QUALITY CRISIS, AN UNWELCOME GIFT FOR UTAH, AND THE U.S.
Air pollution spikes can also cause acute health problems. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) website said studies show small particle pollution exposure can result in increased hospitalizations, emergency room visits for heart issues, strokes, pneumonia, asthma attacks and death. If a person has heart disease, PM exposure “can cause serious problems in a short period of time — even heart attacks — with no warning signs,” the agency stated. And as EnviroNews reported, research conducted by UPHE doctors revealed that an increase in particulate pollution of just 10 micrograms per cubic meter increases the risk of heart attack by eight percent.
Dr. Brent Muhlestein of UPHE Says Even a Small Increase in Air Pollution Can Lead to a Significant Increase in Heart Attack Risk
Dr. Cris Cowley, Fmr. Pres. of the UT Medical Assoc. Explains How Air Pollution Causes Heart Attacks
The combustion of trees and entire forests during wildfires produce some of the most harmful particulates a person can breathe: wood fragments. They’re easily inhaled and harder to exhale. “When I think of these massive wildfires in California, I think of all the pregnant mothers who have no choice but to breathe that stuff. And it’s affecting the fetal development of their child,” Dr. Moench said. “I just cringe.”
THE POLITICS OF POLLUTION
So, what’s in the works to address California’s tanking air quality? Rep. Huffman, who holds a seat on the House Select Committee on Climate Crisis and is a co-sponsor of the Green New Deal, told EnviroNews he’s working on the pollution issues and how it impacts residents of disadvantaged neighborhoods. “We’re trying to bring especially a focus on these frontline communities — communities that are near the fence-line for a lot of polluting industries and freeways and other things that have just been built over the years without any regard for the health of these communities — almost always communities of color,” Huffman said.
Rep. Huffman Emphasizes Disadvantaged Communities of Color Suffer the Brunt of Polluted Air
But medical experts worry if lawmakers and politicians don’t take drastic action soon to quell the West Coast’s climate-driven wildfire emergency, these air quality spikes will continue to worsen, and more people will face life-threatening health problems.
“Look at something like the Green New Deal; we need that. We need it now,” Dr. Moench asserted. “This needs to be reflected in public policy at the state level, at the federal level, at the local level. And that’s one of the reasons why our group has been fighting this for the last 14 years.“
On March 26, 2021, EnviroNews Editor-in-Chief Emerson Urry interviewed Rep. Huffman at Bon Tempe Dam in Marin County, CA, about the Golden State’s new seasonal air pollution spikes.
The two-minute and twenty-one-second on-camera excerpt can be seen in the video player atop this story. The transcript reads as follows:
Emerson Urry: To continue along these lines a little bit. We’re speaking about people moving away from here; I actually know a lot of people that that is going on with. And EnviroNews actually started over in Utah. And over there, they have a real seasonal air pollution crisis. There it’s caused from winter temperature inversions. And, you know, many, many years ago when we started, they would actually keep children in from recess for days or weeks on end when the PM2.5 pollution would hit just 90 or 100. Going on for a few months out here last year, we saw levels that far exceeded that; I mean, almost hitting Beijing levels.
Rep. Jared Huffman: Yeah.
Urry: I know people that were having tremendous respiratory problems, asthma flaring up [and] having to leave the area. And it seems like that’s not being talked a lot about yet. But over in Utah, where they’ve been measuring these seasonal spikes for a long time, they’ve calculated it shaves about two years life expectancy [off] from the average person along the Wasatch Front. So, is that something that’s on the radar, the air pollution? And I mean, that could cause a tremendous catastrophe from a health perspective and an economical one. Is that on the radar?
Huffman: Yes, it is a real thing. And we experienced something in the Bay Area where we take our air quality for granted almost all the time, that some communities in my district experience every single summer. So, if you go up to Humboldt and Trinity County — you go to the Hoopa Reservation, for example, there are major fires in and around that place every single summer, and they’re in canyons where the inversion happens and there’s nowhere to go. So, it is especially acute like almost everything we talk about in terms of climate impacts, and you know, environmental justice issues, the burdens are felt most acutely by those who have the least resources and capacity to deal with it.
Urry: And the young and the elderly.
Huffman: Yeah, definitely. So, they have breathing centers there. They have buildings that they’ve set up with air conditioners and filters where they bring their elders, and these are workarounds that they’ve been doing now for many years.
In a shorter followup segment, Huffman and Urry discussed the climate feedback loops caused by wildfire smoke and how communities of color are disproportionately affected by bad air quality. The transcript from that 53-second excerpt reads as follows:
Urry: And so, you’re on the Select Committee for Climate Crisis correct?
Urry: Is that something that you discuss in that committee, is these kind of air pollution impacts? And also this air pollution goes and falls out on the Arctic and causes the ice to melt even faster — another one of these feedback loops. Is that the kind of stuff that is being discussed in there?
Huffman: We do. We’re trying to bring especially a focus on these frontline communities — communities that are near the fence-line for a lot of polluting industries and freeways and other things that have just been built over the years without any regard for the health of these communities — almost always communities of color. But, indigenous peoples really bear the brunt of a lot of this as well and I represent a lot of Indian Country, so I try to make sure we’re being mindful of that too.
VIEW MORE SEGMENTS FROM THIS ENVIRONEWS FEATURE INTERVIEW SERIES WITH REPRESENTATIVE JARED HUFFMAN