Bleak air quality hovers over Los Angeles

With Los Angeles covered in a thick blanket of smoke, health officials warn residents to stay indoors as much as possible.

By Cassandra Nava, News Editor

In a city known for some of the worst air quality in the country, the recent wildfires have only spiked the problem in Los Angeles, leaving gray, polluted skies as a result.

Fires surrounding the San Fernando Valley — such as the Bobcat fire in the Los Angeles National Forest and the El Dorado fire in San Bernardino — have burned a total of over 80,000 acres, and both are still far from being contained, according to CAL Fire, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Although not all LA residents may not feel the direct impact of these flames, smoke from these disasters have traveled far into the San Fernando Valley. Inhaling wildfire smoke allows fine particles from the ash to travel into the respiratory system.

“Particulate matter — known as PM2.5 — are super small particles and really toxic to our lungs,” stated Chloe Ney, SEI Facilities and Energy Management Fellow at the Los Angeles Community College District. “Those are one of the chemicals we are worried about breathing in when we’re talking about fires because they also create that particulate matter that's been associated with cancer. PM 2.5 is a secondary pollutant, meaning it doesn't happen naturally, it results from combustion.”

Due to the dangers smoke inhalation presents, health officials warned LA residents to stay indoors as much as possible. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that if it looks smoky outside, then it is not a good idea to go outdoors.

“Even if you are healthy, you may experience temporary symptoms such as irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat; coughing; phlegm; chest tightness; and shortness of breath,” according to the government website AirNow. “These symptoms should go away when air quality improves.”

Kathy Hoxsie, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard, told the Los Angeles Times that still, hot air allows the air quality to stay the same, but when light winds start to pick up the smoky skies can thin out. The South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) offers an air quality forecast up to two days in advance, via their map.

The air quality index, or AQI, reports the air quality by the EPA. The AQI ranges from 0 to 500, with 500 being the most polluted, therefore creating the unhealthiest air. Air quality of 0-50 is considered good, 51-100 is moderate, 101-150 is unhealthy for sensitive groups, 151- 200 is unhealthy, 201-250 is very unhealthy and 300 and up is hazardous, according to the AQI website.

“Air pollutants tend to concentrate in hot areas, so it can get really bad in Los Angeles which can be really dangerous for human health,” stated Ney. “As it gets hotter, the smog and air pollution get trapped more and more. It can't escape so it often just gets worse.”

California — Los Angeles in particular — is known to have bad air quality. The smog buildup is evident due to the sheer population of Angelenos. According to IQAir, the population of Los Angeles is an estimated 4 million, with about 6 million in the surrounding Los Angeles County. Emissions from vehicles, traffic congestion and individual power consumption are the most notable causes of the poor air quality in the county. In a 2019 list by IQAir ranking the most polluted cities in North America, 11 cities from Los Angeles County are in the top 51 spots. The wildfires only add onto this, releasing large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

“Toxic pollutants can affect first responders and local residents,” according to a handout from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “In addition, the formation of other pollutants as the air is transported can lead to harmful exposures for populations in regions far away from the wildfires.”

The negative effects smoke has on the respiratory system is particularly dangerous in conjunction with the coronavirus pandemic. According to the CDC, the irritation and inflammation on the lungs caused by wildfire smoke can weaken a person’s ability to fight off a respiratory disease like COVID-19. The CDC also stresses that people should be aware of the different symptoms that smoke inhalation and COVID-19 present. Although both share difficulty breathing and a sore throat, symptoms like fever or chills and diarrhea are indicative of the coronavirus. Those unsure can further investigate with the CDC’s online self checker tool.

“I tried not to go outside as much as possible and I don't know if I was just paranoid, but I did go on a walk once and felt like my throat was burning,” stated Ney in regards to her personal experience with the air quality in her area. “It's just really hard when we're all still quarantining because [being] outside is my one refuge during the day.”

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