Air Pollution From California Fires Equals a Year’s Worth of Traffic

The devastating fires in California have killed over 20 people and at least 300 people are missing. Over 170,000 acres are burned, 3,000 structures have been destroyed and 20,000 people have been evacuated from threatened areas. Firefighters are struggling to contain the flames but winds threaten to expand the scope of this disaster. Thousands have lost everything to the raging infernos and your health could be at risk even if you are outside the path of the fires. 

At the time of writing, there are 22 fires and these vary between zero and 30 percent contained. At some point the smoke will clear, but it will take years to rebuild the gutted landscape. Even in areas not directly impacted by the infernos, there is visible smoke and, of course, the looming specter of lives lost and additional destruction. 

The layer of smoke that has descended on the fire-ravaged region serves as a reminder that physical destruction and displacement are not the only threats posed by the wildfires. According to USA Today, in the course of just a few days the fires have produced as much air pollution as all of the vehicles in California, 35 million in total, do in an entire year. This atmospheric contamination poses a long-term health risk to residents that will continue long after the last flames have been extinguished. 

The air pollution that is blanketing California wine country will affect more than just the lungs and heart of those caught in the path of blazes. Air pollution has also been found to have a negative effect on brain development, possibly by causing blood vessels to constrict or causing toxic buildup in your brain. Research has shown that it can cause cognitive damage in all stages of life. 

Studies have shown exposure to air pollution is associated with significantly faster levels of cognitive decline.  At the other end of the age spectrum, a study found that children exposed to traffic-related air pollution before their first birthday had a higher risk of hyperactivity at the age of 7. 

The smaller the diameter of the particle, the greater its risk of health damage becomes, as these can easily pass into your lungs, causing well-known damage to your respiratory and circulatory systems. Unfortunately, the smaller diameter particles are also more likely to be spread greater distances by prevailing winds. In this way, the fire can impact individuals far away from the blaze. That said, individuals closest to the fires are exposed to the most dangerous concentrations of fumes and smoke.

The most dangerous smoke from the wildfires is generated when structures are burnt, as these are constructed from a wide array of toxic materials. Ironically, flame retardant chemicals are among the worst offenders and do not even perform as advertised. Firefighters are speaking out against the use of fire retardant chemicals in everyday household products, and they have been linked to serious health risks, including infertility, birth defects, neurodevelopmental delays, reduced IQ, behavioral problems, hormone disruptions and cancer. 

Even if you live well outside of the range of these terrible fires, you can’t always escape outdoor air pollution. For this reason it is better to focus your attention on your immediate environment, which you have more, if not full, control over. Amazing as it sounds, indoor air can be five to 10 times more polluted than outdoor air. 

The most effective way to reduce indoor air pollution is to control or eliminate as many sources of pollution as you can first, before using any type of air purifier. This includes accounting for molds, tobacco smoke, volatile organic compounds from paints, aerosol sprays and household cleaners, pesticides, phthalates from vinyl flooring and personal care products, pollutants from pressure-treated wood products and radon gas. 

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