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Smoky haze raises health risk in Valley

By Maddalena Jackson - mjackson@sacbee.com

Published 12:00 am PDT Wednesday, June 25, 2008
Story appeared in METRO section, Page B1

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As the Sacramento area settled into what promises to be a week of hazy air, more attention was being paid to what that could mean in terms of health.

"There are almost 1,000 fires in Northern California," said Daniel Berlant of the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The smoke "is a combination of all these fires." He checked his numbers. "Nine hundred eighty three fires."

Air quality is determined by forcing air through a fine mesh and trapping tiny particles that contribute to the murk.

If the filters straining Sacramento Valley air looked like dirty shirts, everyone could breathe a sigh of relief. But when they look like they fell into the mud, it's time to worry about breathing at all.

"During the San Diego fire, they would come back just black – to the point where they just couldn't hold any more particulate matter," said Gennet Paauwe, spokeswoman for the California Air Resources Board. "That's a reflection of what you're breathing into your lungs."

Jeff Cook, Air Resources Board emergency response coordinator, expressed "no doubt" that if you looked at the filters under current conditions, "you would see very dark brown, which is typical of high concentration."

It is too early to know the full extent of health effects from smoke in the Valley.

Bart Ostro, chief of air pollution epidemiology within the state's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, expects a repeat of the 2006 fire season, when data showed increases in asthma attacks and what looked like increases in hospitalization for heart disease.

"It's likely that we'd see something pretty similar," he said.

Northern California fires continued to threaten communities and force evacuations Tuesday night.

In Butte County, 27 lightning-caused fires had scorched about 5,000 acres by Tuesday night, prompting 1,000 evacuations and threatening about 1,000 structures, fire officials said. The fires – the Butte lightning complex – were 5 percent contained.

One of those fires, burning west of Highway 32 in Tehama County, forced immediate evacuation of about 250 campers from Camp Lassen, a Boy Scout camp.

Cindy Wilson, a Cal Fire spokeswoman, said that if the fire jumped the highway, the campers would have had no way out. About 100 of the evacuees, some of whom belong to Boy Scout groups, have been picked up by their parents at a Chico church, Wilson said.

A precautionary evacuation was in place for the communities of Butte Meadows and Jonesville.

Two fires, one in the area of Rim Road and Highway 70 and at the northern end of Concow Reservoir, was threatening the community of Concow, prompting evacuations and road closures, Wilson said.

Fire officials were concerned about a fire east of the west branch of the Feather River drainage. If it jumped the river, it could prompt evacuations in Magalia.

In Tahoe National Forest, lightning strikes caused 25 fires, grouped into the American River complex and the Yuba River complex fires.

The Yuba River complex had charred about 2,060 acres, and one of its fires was threatening the town of Washington. Residents were advised to prepare for evacuations, said Kathy Van Zuuk, Tahoe National Forest fire information officer.

The American River complex had burned about 1,210 acres.

Smoke has caused poor visibility, making it difficult to bring in aircraft, Van Zuuk said.

Most of the hospitals in the Sacramento region reported no increase in the number of patients complaining of air-related problems on Tuesday. Mercy San Juan Medical Center reported that about two dozen people had complained of health problems from the hazy air, about twice the typical number for this time of year, according to spokesman Bryan Gardner.

Smoke is what happens when a fire doesn't burn perfectly. It spits out minuscule particles of soot, toxins and metals that could hide easily in the end of a human hair. Smoldering fires are the worst.

In a breath of smoky air, large particles attempt to turn the corners of airways and thud into the walls. Smaller particles swirl in as a mist, settling onto any surface they touch. Midsize particles, able to navigate the twisted paths of the lungs, go deep into airways and settle there.

Bodies try to evict the dirt, triggering coughs and sneezes, the need to blow a nose and reflexive swallowing to clear lungs of invaders.

Particles too deep in the lungs to catch a ride up to the throat meet the body's predators.

These cells, called macrophages, police the lungs for bacteria and harmful objects. Drawn to the area by chemical distress calls or already on the scene, macrophages defeat harmful particles by swallowing them whole.

Things can easily go wrong, but it isn't always known how or why.

Particles and heart and lung conditions go hand in hand, explained Kent Pinkerton, director of the UC Davis Center for Health and the Environment.

There are many possible causes of damage – toxic particles that kill macrophages and damage cells and DNA, particles so fine they sink into the walls of the lung, others that set off chain reactions that scar and inflame the respiratory system and yet others that trigger responses in the brain that can affect the heart or trigger asthma attacks.

Ostro of Environmental Health Hazards Assessment said short-term exposure to smoke inhalation can result in heart attack, increased bronchitis, reduced lung function and other physical problems, in addition to work and school time lost.

"The more serious effects are on people who already have pre-existing conditions," Ostro said.

Experts advocate caution, but not panic.

"It's really important to keep in mind that the majority of us who are exposed to smoke particles will do just fine," Pinkerton said. "We might experience mild wheezing, mild chest tightness – certainly if we are exercising. It's those people who are very exquisitely sensitive where it might be enough to put them into the hospital."

About the writer:

  • Call The Bee's Maddalena Jackson, (916) 321-1020. Bee staff writers Jane Liaw and Chelsea Phua contributed to this report.

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