Isabel Jauregui, Sustainability Fellow, January 2019
UCSF Event Highlights Health Impacts of Wildfires and Climate Change
In light of the local wildfires and smoke in the Bay area this fall, a faculty panel discussion—Severe Wildfires: A Climate-Health Emergency—was held at UCSF last month. The event was sponsored by the Office of Sustainability and the newly formed Human Health and Climate Change Student Group, which is composed of future healthcare providers who are taking responsibility for building awareness and making change regarding climate change issues. They are currently working with UCSF faculty to integrate content into curricula across the different health professional schools that prepares students to address the health challenges of climate change in their careers.
The panel was moderated by Katherine Gundling and included UCSF’s John Balmes, Gina Solomon, and Robin Cooper, who spoke about the physical and mental health disparities caused by severe wildfires and shared resources and opportunities for action. The discussion was recorded and is available to view here.
Climate change is a threat multiplier
Both NATO and the Pentagon have labeled climate change as a threat multiplier. This is because on its own climate change isn’t really dangerous. The real danger is that it accelerates and worsens current political, social, environmental, and health problems. The panel discussion explored some of the ways this danger was brought home with recent wildfires in Northern California.
Climate change alone didn’t cause the recent fires, and climate change alone wasn’t responsible for the hazardous air quality we experienced in the Bay area. But climate change does fuel stronger, larger, and more frequent fires, which creates more havoc each and every year for local residents, wildlife, and the environment. This is because climate change works as a domino effect. The increased temperatures and changes in precipitation patterns lead to drought and warmer springs, which then result in a smaller snow pack and drier, stressed forests that are more likely to provide fuel for fires.
Wildfire smoke creates unhealthy air
One of the panelists, John Balmes, Professor of Medicine at UCSF and Professor of Environmental Health Sciences in the School of Public Health at UC Berkeley, explained the relationship between the smoke emissions from these forest fires and health, using the case of the 2018 Camp Fire as an example. During this fire, both primary pollutants in the form of particulate matter soot and secondary pollutants such as ozone were emitted and created a thick layer of unhealthy air over the Bay area.
“Wood smoke is basically tobacco smoke without the nicotine,” Balmes explained. Although smoke contains hundreds of different chemicals, visible smoke is mainly composed of soot. This leads to symptoms of irritation in people’s noses, eyes, and throats, as well as respiratory diseases, coughs, wheezing, and an increased use of inhalers. In addition to pulmonary and cardiovascular effects, exposure to pollutants can also affect fetal and childhood development, cognitive functions, and attention deficit—and create issues beyond what we know.
During the weeks the Camp Fire was burning, the Air Quality Index (AQI) hit a high of 246 in Oakland and 239 in San Francisco. The AQI is a measurement that reports how clean the air is on any given day and reports what associated health effects might be concerning. Air quality is rated with numbers ranging from 0 to 500, corresponding to levels termed Good, Moderate, Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups, Unhealthy, Very Unhealthy, and Hazardous. Between November 8 and November 21, areas surrounding San Francisco received a rating of Unhealthy every day, resulting in a call for residents to wear N95 masks.
What can we do?
Wildfires are natural and inevitable. However, the problem we face now is that we are seeing more fires as well as a longer fire season. Fires are common in California partly due to our legacy of favoring fire suppression over prescribed burns. This leads to a huge backlog of fuel, including dead trees and underbrush, that is just waiting to ignite.
Some things that can be done to prevent or try to reduce the devastating impacts from fires include practicing prescribed burns, reducing development in the urban-wild land interface, and fostering protection of communities by ensuring there are fuel breaks, escape routes, and trainings for residents.
- If you missed the event, check out the recording here
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