Dangerous Air Quality in California

Several years ago my mom sent me four giant boxes of N95 respirator masks. This was during the “swine flu” pandemic in 2009. I never wore them (but don’t tell her). Frankly, I thought I would look silly and believed any benefit was minor. Finally, after sitting in the far corner of a cabinet for years, there is a better use for them. Health officials are advising N95 respirator masks be worn in areas affected by the horrific fire outbreak this week.

Hospitals in Southern California have reported an uptick in patients with breathing problems, and are advising that people limit time spent outside, keep windows closed, and use air conditioners inside.

Santa Rosa, where devastating fires broke out in October, had the same air quality issues and recommendations:

The blazes create smoke waves — pulses of pollution containing everything from charred plastic residue to soot to other small particles that lodge deep in the lungs. They can trigger short-term ailments, such as coughing; worsen chronic diseases, such as asthma; and lead to long-term damage, including cancer.

The effect of the fires in Northern California’s wine country, which destroyed thousands of homes and killed 43 people, went well beyond the burn zone. The smoke choked the San Francisco Bay Area, home to 7 million people in nine counties, for days…

Even for healthy people, it can make breathing a miserable, chest-heaving experience. For the elderly, the young and the frail, the pollution can be disabling or deadly.

Health officials have advised that people in fire areas take precaution, even when smoke and ash can’t be seen or smelled.

Smoke Effects from the California Wildfires

The fires in California are heartbreaking and terrifying. Because I think there are enough hellscape fire photos already circulating, here is a smoke free photo of Ventura harbor on better days, plus a pelican. 

In addition to the completely unsettling feeling of not knowing if and when and where the winds will shift the fires to, there are a number of health effects that come from inhaling all that smoke. Wildfire smoke is a mixture of particles from burning vegetation, burning building materials, and anything else that’s burning.  According to the CDC, “wildfire smoke can make anyone sick. Even someone who is healthy can get sick if there is enough smoke in the air.” Inhalation can have immediate health effects, including coughing, asthma, chest pain, headaches, and more. People who are more likely to experience health effects include older adults, pregnant women, children, and people with preexisting respiratory and heart conditions.

So what can you do, besides sigh loudly in despair every few minutes? Limit your time spent outside, and keep your windows and doors closed. Other CDC recommendations:

Do not add to indoor pollution. When smoke levels are high, do not use anything that burns, such as candles and fireplaces. Do not vacuum, because vacuuming stirs up particles already inside your home. Do not smoke tobacco or other products, because smoking puts even more pollution into the air.

Run an air conditioner if you have one, but keep the fresh-air intake closed and the filter clean to prevent outdoor smoke from getting inside.

Do not rely on dust masks for protection. Paper “comfort” or “dust” masks commonly found at hardware stores trap large particles, such as sawdust. These masks will not protect your lungs from smoke. An “N95” mask, properly worn, will offer some protection. If you decide to keep a mask on hand, see the Respirator Fact Sheet provided by CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Also, keep an eye on your pets for breathing trouble. And remember that even if the air outside looks clear, it’s unlikely to be free from harmful particles.

More resources:

California’s Hepatitis A Outbreak and the Importance of Bathrooms

Access to safe and clean bathrooms is important for several reasons, one of which is disease prevention. Lack of access to safe and clean bathrooms is a major reason the hepatitis A outbreak in California has been quick to spread and hard to halt.

Hepatitis A is a liver disease transmitted through ingestion of contaminated food and water or through direct contact with an infectious person, according to the WHO. The risk of hepatitis A is strongly associated with lack of safe water, and poor sanitation and hygiene.  Although California’s hepatitis A outbreak has been linked to the transient homeless population, according to the WHO the virus is also “one of the most frequent causes of foodborne infection.” So nothing is safe, as usual.

As of November 10, San Diego had reported 546 cases of the disease and 20 deaths. There are signs the outbreak is slowing and efforts to vaccinate the homeless population against hepatitis A are proving effective. According to The San Diego Tribune:

Last week…local health providers forwarded only eight possible hepatitis A cases to the health department for further investigation. There have been no new deaths, leaving the outbreak total at 20 for the second straight week.

It’s the lowest weekly new case total since the outbreak began, eventually launching a vast, multmilllion-dollar campaign to improve sanitation and housing conditions for the homeless.

What could still go wrong? The physician noted that the outbreak could still jump into another demographic population such as gay men who are considered at an elevated risk of hepatitis A infection. Because the virus’s incubation period can last up to 50 days, there is still a chance, he added, that an infected person could have exposed a large number of people who simply have not started to show symptoms yet.

In addition to the homeless and drug users, high-risk groups are those with compromised immune systems, existing liver disease and gay men. Public-facing job classifications also recommended for vaccination include food handlers, first responders and health care workers.

 

Another article in The San Diego Tribune notes that the city built a 2 million dollar restroom in 2014, “designed by an artist to invoke “Jonathan Livingston Seagull,” the popular 1970 novella about a seagull who wanted to be special.” While the restroom building looks pretty, many point out that the money could have been better spent on more restrooms to serve the city’s large homeless population, potentially avoiding such a massive outbreak. According to the article:

The city was warned repeatedly as far back as 2000 that human waste on city streets was a problem that threatened public health, and that there was a shortage of 24-hour public restrooms available to the city’s growing homeless population downtown.

In 2005, city officials shot down a grand jury recommendation calling for more toilets to address the shortage. City officials said the facilities could cost up to $250,000 each to buy and install, plus another $65,000 per year to maintain, and the city did not have “the resources to execute a project of this magnitude.”

Based on those cost estimates, the $2 million spent on the seagull-themed restroom could have paid for four such facilities and operated them for 16 years.

 

Not the Disney Trip You’re Expecting

Twelve cases of Legionnaires disease have been found in recent Disneyland visitors. The outbreak was traced to two cooling towers contaminated with the bacteria.

Legionnaires is a severe form of pneumonia, caused by exposure to contaminated water, or mist. It is contracting by inhaling the microscopic water droplets that contain the bacteria and develops two to ten days after exposure. Outbreaks have been linked to a variety of water sources: hot tubs, swimming pools, air conditioners, and other water systems in large buildings. It is treatable via antibiotics (while they still work anyway), but can lead to life-threatening complications and may be fatal. People with weakened immune systems are especially at risk.

Meanwhile, Disney has shut down the contaminated cooling towers and treated them with chemicals to destroy the bacteria. A bit of an ominous uptick in Legionnaires has been recorded this year. According to the LA Times:

Orange County has recorded more than 55 cases of the disease this year and has seen the number of cases jump in recent years. A similar upward trend has been seen nationally and elsewhere in Southern California, according to the healthcare agency, though what’s causing that is unclear.

Weekly Outbreak Update From PlagueGirl!

  • Cantaloupes and the Listeria Outbreak:  According to the CDC the current Listeria outbreak has resulted in 23 deaths so far. IT is the deadliest known outbreak of foodborne illness in the USA in more than 25 years.  A total of 116 people have been sickened and more outbreaks are expected. Symptoms may take up to 2 months to develop.  In the “Cantaloupe Center of the World,” hundreds of workers have been laid off.  Now even safe cantaloupes aren’t selling.  In California, where the season is nearly over, many growers are thinking about abandoning their fields.
  • Swine Flu in Nicaragua:  Thirty-two people have been infected with the H1N1 virus, all of them either in stable condition or discharged.  The media is assuring people there is no need for alarm. Not yet, anyway.
  • The Seals Aren’t Safe: A mysterious outbreak among seals in Arctic Alaska.  Hundreds of seals have been seen with mangy hair and skin lesions, and half of them have been found dead. Reports of nearly 150 other seals with the illness have come in from surrounding villages.
  • Feral Cats and Rabies: In Bay County, Florida, 5 animals have been diagnosed with rabies this year.  A feral cat in the area was observed acting strangely and officials have since set up a trapping program.  More than 30 cats have been trapped and euthanized because of their proximity to the rabid cat.  People are being advised to not approach animals acting strangely.   More about rabies, if you’re curious.

Standard Feral Cat