Inhaling trouble: the health toll

The Bay Area experienced its dirtiest air on record as a result of the smoke-belching wildfires in early October. Although Sonoma, Napa and Solano counties bore the initial brunt, the plume also drifted as far as the South Bay.

So how much pollution was there?

The air quality was so unhealthy that over several days, air pollution in the North Bay reached levels equivalent to the kind of levels you see on bad days in Beijing, China, said Lisa Fasano, a spokeswoman for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

CNN reported that the wildfires produced the same amount of air pollution as vehicles did in California in one year.

The air district issued multi-day health advisories and Spare The Air alerts in October, advising people to stay indoors in buildings with filtered air or to wear N95 masks to help minimize breathing fine particles.

“It’s unprecedented in recent memory that we’ve reached this level for this period of days,” said Ralph Borrmann, a spokesman for the district. Officials continue to warn that air quality will remain poor for days to come due to active wildfires and changing wind patterns.

As cleanup begins and the area tries to get back to business, the California Labor Federation is urging workers not to work in dangerous conditions—and that if they must work, they need to wear proper masks. The union also advises any workers expected to work without proper gear to file a complaint with the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health.

Because complaints are confidential, the state may not make public any citations against employers until an investigation is completed, said Erika Monterroza, a spokeswoman for the Department of Industrial Relations, which oversees Cal/OSHA.

“We’re in the process of posting additional information on what employers need to be aware of as they begin the process of cleaning up,” Monterroza said. “There are still health hazards that they need to keep in mind such as wearing masks or long sleeves.”