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Lingering smoke from holiday a Bay Area health hazard

PostPosted: Tue Dec 27, 2011 10:10 am
by Wilberforce
Lingering smoke from holiday a Bay Area health hazard
By Lisa M. Krieger

Posted: 12/26/2011 07:18:49 PM PST

Holiday wood-burning, coupled with stagnant air, filled Bay Area skies with smoke so unhealthy that it rivaled conditions seen after 2008's major wildfires, according to air quality officials.

Despite several consecutive "Spare the Air" alerts, by Monday morning, all nine Bay Area counties sat under a dense and lingering blanket of smoke, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District reported.

"People think fireplaces are a traditional thing. They're still unaware of how unhealthy smoke pollution is, so they continue to burn," said air district spokeswoman Lisa Fasano.

Late Monday afternoon, soot levels in central San Jose averaged 43 micrograms per cubic liter of air. In Oakland, they averaged 45; Livermore, 37; and Redwood City, 31.

They soared far higher on Christmas night, with levels hitting the high 60s and 70s in some spots.

That's nearly double the federally allowable limit of 35 micrograms per cubic liter of air.

And it's even higher than the smoke experienced by the Bay Area after Butte, Shasta and Trinity counties ignited in late June 2008 after a freak barrage of thunderstorms that sent clouds of smoke our way. Bay Area soot levels at the time averaged 35 to 42 micrograms.

Rebekah Sprecher took her 16-year-old son Ricky to the movies on Monday afternoon, hoping the indoor air wouldn't aggravate his cystic fibrosis.

But it didn't help.

"His breathing sounded thicker, and he was coughing," she said.

"People keep burning, not realizing that it is making people sicker," she said, "especially those with life-threatening diseases."

A growing body of scientific research shows that microscopic particles of soot can penetrate deep into lungs and cause deadly exacerbations of lung and cardiac illnesses. About 60,000 Americans die annually from illnesses caused by particulates, according to a recent study based on Harvard Medical School data.

The Bay Area is vulnerable to high pollution levels in both the winter and summer. In winter, the cold and still nights create a situation where air hangs low, trapping particulates until a storm scours them away. (In the summer, there's an ozone problem.)

On Monday, conditions were reminiscent of the air when smoking filled up planes and restaurants, according to Broadbent, executive officer of the district.

Anyone who violates the "Spare the Air" alert, triggered when levels climb, faces a warning -- then a $400 fine. In addition to fireplaces, the ban covers woodstoves and inserts, pellet stoves, outdoor fire pits and any other wood-burning devices. Exceptions are made for homes where wood is the only source of heat.

But there is no official policing; violators are reported by the public.

A "No Burn" request has been issued for Tuesday, which means burning isn't illegal, but residents can protect the health of their neighbors by not burning.

This holiday, the Sprecher household didn't build a roaring fire in their living room. They never do. And they wish that other families were more cautious.

"Ricky can stay indoors and play video games," Rebekah Sprecher said. "But he'd be happier to get outside."