“These are unprecedented conditions,” said California Bay Area Air Quality Management District Spokesman Tom Flannigan.
That’s saying something for California, one of most wildfire-prone states in the United States. Flannigan’s words, spoken in the midst of massive blazes tearing through Northern California in October of last year, weren’t about the rescue conditions, melting infrastructures, or even the singed fields of the richly agricultural region. Instead they lamented the state of the air swirling around the flames: saturated with smoke, and billowing uncontained over millions of Californians.
Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria could alone have made the year 2017 a stain on U.S. public health. With the addition of over 500,000 acres of California devoured by fire – more than doubling the 5-year average including the same period – 2017 broke a dubious record. Floods, hurricanes, drought, tornadoes, and fires cost the U.S. government $306 billion dollars in disaster relief, smoking the previous 2005 record of $215 billion.
That’s a big number, but it still doesn’t cover the ramifications of health issues reaching far beyond the disaster itself. Seventy or 100 miles from the nearest flame, your body can still suffer the most insidious health issue from wildfire: smoke. Even though the primary protection is simply to stay inside and away, agricultural workers across California could still be found working in the not-so-fresh air. Some suffered the highest air pollution levels ever recorded in the state, comparable to the levels of the infamous smog cloud over Beijing. What do you do when the very air you breathe is a hazard?
A number of wonderful community organizations stepped in to provide facemasks to fieldworkers, making labor tolerable and scaling down the respiratory effects of ambient smoke. Unfortunately, a simple facemask can only do so much. Just like the majority of farmworkers who opted to cover mouths and noses with cloth, facemasks block large pieces of ash and dust from being inhaled. The problem is, the most dangerous part of wildfire smoke is too tiny to be stopped by the mesh trap of masks or bandanas; it is the same particulate matter found in more quotidian air pollution.
“Particulate matter” is general term, referring not to the kind of matter but only to its size (small). That’s because particulate matter is a big salad bowl of whatever substances were burned and freed to the air. Take an uncontrolled wildfire in Northern California; burned are not only trees and grasses, but also machinery, oil, chemicals, plastic, glass, and anything else in the path of the destruction. Especially in highly populous regions, an abundance of man-made materials makes for artificial chemicals and heavy metals sent skyward and breathed in by the next passerby.
As we all know, there’s a reason pesticide and chemical applications are heavily regulated. They are demonstrably hazardous to human health, and rarely as destructively as when inhaled. In the richly agricultural regions of California, where through late 2017 orchards, fields, vineyards, and nurseries were scorched, pesticides residues were released to add to the mix of air above the fires and for hundreds of miles beyond. The smaller the particle, like those of many pesticide chemicals, the more pervasive it is to the human respiratory system, and onward into the circulation. There, inhaled particulate matter has been linked to stroke, cardiovascular events, cancers, and more.
You can guess the best thing to do; avoid wildfires. Easier said than done, and further complicated by the fact that beyond visible smoke, particulate matter loiters invisible to the eyes and nose. If you can’t get out of town, try to stay indoors and prevent smoke from permeating your home. Where does that leave the most exposed of all: farmworkers?
The next best thing to avoiding smoke altogether is a N95 particulate respirator, which will trap smaller substances than a common facemask. Respirators like these should already be on hand for pesticide handlers, required by federal law to use them during certain application activities. Still lacking these, a common facemask from the hardware store or a piece of clothing is much better than nothing. Keep up with local air quality reports and pay special attention to protecting the very young, very old, and those respiratory and cardiovascular issues; they are the most vulnerable to health risks from the smoke.
Many suffering through their long work hours with bandanas tied around their faces, farmworkers braved the fire to alleviate untold losses to the grapes, avocados, berries, and leafy greens flowing from California’s fields. Grateful as we are to them for feeding our nation, we’d rather see them get the day off.