Photo via the U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Saquadrea Crosby gets fitted for an N95 respirator in this 2014 photo from the U.S. Air Force. One local expert has cautioned on the use of such masks when performing strenuous outdoor activities.

published on November 30, 2018 - 7:00 AM
Written by Donald A. Promnitz

Following the severe wildfires that devastated Butte County in Northern California, the effects were felt not only in the immediate area, but also in the Central Valley.

The fire, which started earlier this month, claimed 85 known lives, while nearly 250 people remain missing, making it the worst wildfire in California history.

Before a series of statewide storms finally cleared up the smoke, it further caused severe air pollution problems locally, wreaking havoc on those with respiratory problems and forcing students indoors.

Wildfires release a wide variety of pollutants into the atmosphere, including carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and methane, as well as harmful particulate matter. For children and the elderly, and people with respiratory and cardiovascular problems, these can translate into severe events and hospital visits. And while rains resulted in a reprieve for air quality, medical and environmental experts are offering their advice on how companies and schools can protect themselves from the smog in the event of the next fire.

Among those offering their advice is Dr. John Capitman, director of the Central Valley Health Policy Institute. Speaking on the vulnerability of those working outdoors, Capitman weighed in on the use of N95 breathing masks. On Nov. 14, Cal/OSHA released a statement requiring the use of these masks for all employees outside in areas effected by smoke. Their use, however, may cause other problems if heavy exertion is involved.

“If it fits right and it works, it blocks much of the air that the person is breathing,” Capitman said. “So if they’re working hard and potentially needing to breathe hard – they’re resting something, carrying something, picking things – there’s a risk that the person will have cardiovascular problems from not getting enough oxygen.”

And despite Cal/OSHA’s promotion of the N95, Anton Simanov, an air quality education representative with the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, said that their organization does not recommend their use.

“We have not suggested masks in the past,” Simonov said, “and I know that’s quite the subject… and the best thing you can do in those situations – those conditions – is to limit your outdoor activity and try to be in a home that either has air conditioning or a central HVAC system that can filter out some of the air.”

To help the public better protect themselves, the Pollution Control District has been making use of the Real-time Air Advisory Network (RAAN) and the Real-time Outdoor Activity Risk (ROAR) chart. Together, these programs monitor the air quality and assess the risk for outdoor activity on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the most severe. The RAAN can also be downloaded as a smartphone app, giving the user regular updates.

Last week, the Fresno Unified School District put the system’s advice to use and cancelled outdoor activities for its students when the ROAR was at Level 5. According to Miguel Arias, chief information officer for Fresno Unified, class had been dismissed for the week of Thanksgiving, but practices were still being conducted for their athletic programs. The Level 5 readings prompted these practices to be moved indoors.

“When you get to a Level 5, which is the highest level of particulate matter in the air, it’s not healthy for anyone – children or adults,” Arias said. “So you want to make sure that we protect the health of our students as best as we can.”

Still, Simanov cautioned that a low RAAN reading did not necessarily mean the air is good for work or other outdoor activity. In the event that the individual can see or smell smoke in the time of a wildfire, he stated that the RAAN/ROAN should be automatically treated as a Level 4 or higher.

Ultimately both Simanov and Capitman concluded that in the event of severe wildfire pollution, there is no better alternative available than avoiding outdoor activity as much as possible.

“I’ve got this very difficult message for you, which is that it’s very difficult to protect people who are working outside from the air,” Capitman said. “And for most of us, it’s very difficult to protect ourselves, even in our homes.”

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