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AQMD Issues Health Alert

October 27, 2003|Gary Polakovic | Times Staff Writer

As the pall of dense smoke from growing wildfires spread Sunday, the South Coast Air Quality Management District issued a "smoke advisory" for much of Southern California, declaring that the air poses a significant health risk in virtually all of the nondesert portions of the region.

The AQMD's executive officer, Barry Wallerstein, urged area residents, especially youths engaged in sports, to avoid vigorous outdoor activities.

"This is covering a large geographic area, and people ought to curtail their outdoor exercising," Wallerstein said. "The precautionary thing to do is stop exercising when ash is in the air and you smell smoke. It's especially important for youth athletic teams. They should not be playing outdoor soccer, baseball, or sports with vigorous exercise."

AQMD officials said they anticipated that the smoke advisory would remain in effect today as dry Santa Ana winds and low humidity were expected to stoke flames throughout the day.

Among the places affected by the smoke advisory, to date, are the Inland Empire, the San Bernardino Mountains, the San Gabriel and San Fernando valleys, much of Ventura County and inland Orange County. Areas of coastal Los Angeles and Orange counties were not covered by the advisory.

Western Riverside and San Bernardino counties have borne the brunt of the smoke for several days. Air pollution measurements over Mira Loma and Upland over the weekend revealed concentrations of microscopic particles up to 400 micrograms per cubic meter of air -- more than twice the limit the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency deems safe.

The AQMD warned that people should respond as if a severe smog episode were underway.

Area hospitals reported a slight increase in patients with pulmonary problems.

At Chino Valley Medical Center, there were more patients and fewer doctors and nurses as a consequence of the fires.

"Yesterday [Saturday] was unbelievable. Physicians and nurses couldn't make it in because they were evacuated from their homes, and we had a lot of asthmatics coming in for treatment," said Chino Valley nursing supervisor Lana Van Sant.

Hospitals in San Diego and Ventura counties also reported more emergency room patients than usual. Most patients were treated and released.

"We are on code yellow. It's a general code that means there's a major disaster and to be prepared," said Julie Taber, spokeswoman for Palomar Medical Center in Escondido.

Unlike ozone, the main ingredient of smog in Southern California, smoke is a highly complex mixture of particles and gases. High temperatures make lots of tiny particles that are easily inhaled. About 90% of the pollutants in smoke are microscopic particles, including tar, soot and assorted chemicals.

Carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides, the same stuff that comes from auto tailpipes, are also produced by wildfires, especially near the flames. Carbon monoxide robs the body of oxygen and can cause headaches, dizziness and asphyxiation. Other chemicals are present too, including formaldehyde, acids and a class of cancer-causing compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

"These fires generate a lot of gases and particles," said Henry Gong, professor of medicine at USC and a clinical researcher at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center in Downey. "It's much worse than a typical smoggy day because you're adding the emissions from a fire to what we typically have."

Recent studies from Singapore and elsewhere in Southeast Asia show that people living and working around wildfires have significantly higher white blood cell counts, an indication that the body is marshaling its defenses to fight inflammation, Gong said.

Winds that fan the flames, too, carry dust from desert areas and pollens that can contribute to air pollution and make people with allergies or respiratory conditions feel generally miserable.

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