A longtime asthma sufferer, Shirley Bittante tries to stay inside when the air district rates conditions outside her Fair Oaks house as “unhealthy.” She may have to spend more time indoors this summer as heat and drought degrade air quality across the state.
Bittante, 60, said she’s noticed more dust and fumes in the air in recent years. More fallow farmland, more forest fires, stagnant air and other factors aggravated by the state’s record four-year drought have spiked annual particle concentrations in Sacramento and other cities, creating an especially difficult environment for people with respiratory illnesses.
“I don’t have to physically see the smog. I just know it’s bad,” she said. “When you live with it every day, you get so used to it – the congestion and the coughing ... I don’t see any end in sight.”
Particle pollution has increased in 25 California counties, including Sacramento, where the number of unhealthy particle days has nearly tripled since 2014, according to the American Lung Association’s 2015 State of the Air report released in April. Statewide, 28 million people live in counties that received a failing grade for air quality, making up 73 percent of the state’s population.
In the Central Valley, the drought compounds problems with the mix of tiny solid and liquid particles in our polluted air. They come from exhaust fumes, wood smoke, agricultural fields and road dust, among other sources.
Despite the major progress that California has made around emissions in the last decade, drought-specific conditions continue to add challenges. Where there used to be vegetation, there are now fallow fields from which dry soil can blow into neighboring towns. On construction sites, workers must be conservative about using water to keep down dust.
And the threat of wildfires is especially imminent. There have been nearly 2,500 wildfires in the past six months, compared to a five-year average of 1,650 during the same time period, according to Cal Fire data. Last summer, the 87,000-acre King fire pushed air pollution to hazardous levels in Placer and El Dorado counties. The fire spread more rapidly than usual due to drought conditions, such as dry soil and dead trees.
The increase in particle emissions has become a bigger problem because of what scientists call a temperature inversion – a stagnant high-pressure system that lingers in the atmosphere on top of cool air and traps particulate matter close to the ground.
In a typical winter, that matter would be swept out by the occasional rainstorm. But in Northern California, the gunk emitted by human activity remains stuck within 1 kilometer above the ground, said Michael Kleeman, professor of environmental engineering at UC Davis.
“When you have hot, sunny conditions in California, that usually means the atmosphere is not mixing well,” he said. “We don’t have nearly as many people in Central California, but we have much longer stagnation problems in the atmosphere because the air tends to stay trapped. … It’s an unfortunate circumstance of the geography.”
There have been nearly 2,500 wildfires in the past six months, compared to a five-year average of 1,650 during the same time period
Particles created by agricultural and industrial equipment tend to range between 2.5 and 10 microns in size, or about one-tenth the width of a human hair, while those created by vehicles and coal burning can be microscopic.
The finer particles can invade the human body through the lungs, ultimately slipping into the bloodstream and causing inflammation-related problems including heart attack and stroke. About 7,000 people die in California each year due to particle pollution complications, said Will Barrett, senior policy analyst at the lung association.
“As the drought weather conditions are slowing our progress toward clean air, we need to do that much more to improve the conditions that are impacting health,” he said.
The particle-riddled air has been the culprit behind vicious allergy seasons and high rates of asthma in recent years. Without rain to wash away the pollen, which is already dense in Sacramento because of the thick tree cover, these respiratory conditions are easily exacerbated, said Dr. Binita Mandal, allergist and asthma specialist with Mercy Medical Group.
Additionally, those allergic to mold may be disturbed by spores brought up from dry soil, or by new irritants introduced as people search for drought-friendly landscaping solutions.
Mandal said she’s seen more children hospitalized with asthma-related problems this year as well as more flare-ups in children who had never shown symptoms of asthma before, or whose asthma was under control.
“Inhalation of the particulate matter leads to a cascade of inflammation in the bronchial air tubes,” she said. “You’re going to find these conditions in people who work in the city, in the farms. No one’s really immune to it.”
Sue Schooley of Fair Oaks is all too familiar with the effect that can have on kids, whose immune systems are less able to fight off what they inhale. Her two boys, now 19 and 22, were both diagnosed with asthma as toddlers.
The condition became so severe as the boys aged that they had to use breathing machines, and be held back from sports practice or even school on highly polluted days, which Schooley kept a close eye on.
She’s placed inhalers in every part of the house, as well as in the car, backpacks and her kids’ pockets. Schooley now volunteers with Breathe California, a nonprofit that raises awareness about air quality and provides resources for families struggling with asthma.
“(My kids’ struggle) really had me step up to the plate, knowing that more and more kids in our region are getting asthma, and how many people don’t know what it is or how to manage it,” she said. “If you can’t breathe, nothing else matters.”
Tips for staying healthy in polluted air:
▪ Check the daily air quality forecast at SparetheAir.com
▪ If you’re in a sensitive group (children, asthmatics, the elderly), keep indoors on bad air days
▪ If you must go outdoors, limit physical activity or wear a mask
▪ Reduce time spent in and around vehicles
▪ Keep a distance from campfires and fireplaces