Health & Medicine

Shasta County air quality levels ‘very unhealthy’ amid fires. Here’s what that means.

As the Carr Fire and Mendocino Complex Fire both continue to wreak havoc on Northern California, health officials warn locals in and near areas affected by wildfires to be mindful of the health risks posed by poor air quality.

Current reports show Mendocino County has an air quality level of 51, considered “moderate.”

The most recent reports place Redding’s air quality index level in at 273 – in the “very unhealthy” range. At this level, everyone is at risk for “more serious health effects,” the Shasta County Department of Resource Management website explains.

“The conditions are very similar to what they have been for the past (few days), since Thursday/Friday,” said Rob Stahl, senior air pollution inspector for the department. “There’s not been a lot of change.”

Air quality levels reflect the concentration of small, harmful particles in the air.

Small particulate matter within wildfire smoke poses a direct threat to human health. Whereas a human hair is 60 micrometers in diameter, particles large than 10 micrometers can irritate a person’s eyes, nose and throat, according to information from the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.

Particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers can reach the lungs. These particles are so small, they can pass through the lungs and reach the bloodstream.

Once in the bloodstream, “people can get everything from a basic headache to asthma attacks,” said John Waldrop, the air quality manager for the Shasta County Department of Resource Management. “It can cause folks with a heart disease to have a heart attack.”

Those populations most vulnerable to the effects of air pollution and smoke inhalation are the elderly and young people, individuals with conditions like asthma or heart disease and pregnant women.

Smoky, polluted air resulting from wildfires can worsen pre-existing conditions for people with respiratory issues, like asthma, said Sacramento County Public Health Officer Olivia Kasirye. Symptoms such as headaches, fatigue and lightheadedness indicate a potential health impact due to bad air quality.

Carbon monoxide, a colorless, odorless gas, is another hazardous pollutant associated with wildfires.

“Carbon monoxide levels are highest during the smoldering stages of a fire, especially in very close proximity to the fire,” the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment reports.

As wildfires throughout the state increase in frequency and severity, Waldrop said fires are becoming a greater public health concern.

Public health officials in Sacramento County said residents should pay attention to local air quality levels.

“We’re hearing a number of reports right now about fires in different counties, not necessarily Sacramento, but it’s important for people to be aware and to listen to what the air quality is because those wildfires do impact the air quality,” Kasirye said.

County officials are monitoring local levels – current Sacramento air quality levels are considered “good.”

Stahl said it’s difficult to estimate when air quality levels in Shasta County will improve.

“It’s all based on when they can get containment of the fire,” he said. “I haven’t heard of any dates when they’re going to get containment, so it’s going to be after they can get the fire out.”

Stahl advises those residing in and around areas with poor air quality to limit outdoor activities and wear N95 masks – which protect from airborne particles if outside.

N95 masks are available for free in Mendocino County at libraries in Ukiah, Willits and Round Valley during normal hours of operation. In Shasta County, the Redding Civic Auditorium will provide the masks starting at 4 p.m. Monday.

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