EDF Health

Breathing wildfire smoke: A scientist mom’s concerns

This post originally appeared on EDF Voices

Maria Harris is an Environmental Epidemiologist.

Downtown Oakland, CA skyline obscured by wildfire smoke. Aug. 22, 2020 Photo by Jose Carlos Fajardo, Getty Images.

If the risks, hardships and anxiety of life during a pandemic were not enough, my fellow northern Californians are now facing another health crisis.

As I write this, hundreds of wildfires are burning across the state, among them two of the largest ever in California. Together, the fires have burned more than 1.4 million acres, destroyed 2,800 homes and buildings, killed eight people and forced thousands to evacuate their homes.

On top of the acute risks to lives and homes, residents across the state are suffering from highly polluted air as massive plumes of smoke fill the skies above our homes.

Children, seniors and those with lung disease are especially vulnerable

As a mom of two young kids, it’s been a tough couple weeks of anxiously monitoring air quality data and maps to determine if and when it might be safe to go outside, while seeking information on how to keep my family healthy.

As an environmental health scientist, I know that wildfire smoke has been linked to a range of negative health impacts, including asthma exacerbation, which can lead to emergency room visits and hospitalizations, along with increased rates of heart attacks and even death. Children and pregnant women, as well as those with heart disease or respiratory conditions like asthma, are particularly vulnerable to the health impacts of wildfire smoke.

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Hurricanes Coming: Protecting Black and Brown Neighborhoods from a “Triple Whammy”

Elena Craft, Ph.D., is Senior Director of Climate and Health

This is the first in a series of Global Clean Air blogs on COVID-19 and air pollution. EDF scientists will share data about pollution levels during quarantine from a local and global perspective, and provide recommendations for governments and companies to Rebuild Better.

A black man who lived most of his 88 years in Pleasantville was one of the first Houstonians to die from COVID-19.

James C. Campbell, Source: ABC13.com Houston

His name was James C. Campbell. He raised a family in one of the first neighborhoods in the city planned for black Houstonians, Pleasantville, which has been surrounded in the years since it was founded by congested interstates, salvage yards, metal recyclers, and a sprawling brewery where heavy trucks come and go day and night. Pleasantville residents still share stories about where they were when chemicals in warehouses exploded in the 1990s and forced them to flee their neighborhood for safety.

Just days after Campbell’s funeral in early April, as the coronavirus started to spread across Texas, UT Health researchers mapped neighborhoods across Houston like Pleasantville where residents suffering from underlying health conditions and from years of exposure to air pollution were at increased risk from the worst impacts of a COVID infection. The intention was clear: Data could help local government leaders decide how, and where, to marshal resources to protect the health of those who needed it most.

Disasters do not impact neighborhoods equally, data like that show. It’s clear during the coronavirus pandemic, just as it was clear during past disasters like Hurricane Harvey. In 2017, for example, in the first, and worst days of the storm, 93 percent of all known toxic emissions in all of Harris County were released within a four-mile radius of the predominantly Hispanic neighborhood Manchester — an area that includes Pleasantville — even though it makes up less than 5 percent of the county geographically.

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Podcast: Hurricane Harvey’s Toxic Aftermath

In late August 2017, Hurricane Harvey’s torrential rains brought unprecedented flooding to Houston and large portions of the southeast coast of Texas. The storm destroyed homes and businesses, prompted numerous rescues, and left Texans to piece their lives back together. Harvey also led to substantial releases of toxic chemicals into communities.

The Houston area is home to hundreds of chemical plants and refineries. While highly visible incidents, like the explosions at the Arkema chemical plant, dominated news coverage, toxic chemical releases from plants occurred throughout the region.

In this episode of our podcast, we spoke with EDF’s own Dr. Elena Craft, who helped spearhead efforts to monitor these releases in real-time. Elena talks about her experiences on the ground, the inadequacies of many chemical plant risk management plans, and what it all means moving forward.

 

Want to hear about other environmental health issues? Subscribe and listen on iTunes or Google Play, or check out Podbean to listen via desktop!

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