“Do you have a mask?” That became San Francisco’s new greeting.
In brainstorming what to share in my next post, the extremity of the smoke and horrendous air quality that filled the Bay Area seemed almost too predictable. In a way, I’ve grown accustomed to the constant wildfires raging throughout California. The N95 masks shielding every mouth in sight have come to seem mundane rather than jarring. The grey haze that has settled in on my morning commute and limited visibility when walking around town has become the norm. But as I sat, surrounded by what looked like a population coming out of a surgical operating room, I was reminded that quite frankly, this is not the norm.
The transition of the environmental movement over the last few decades has shifted from one of doomsday stories to one focusing on catalyzing change. Gone are the days of polar bears as the figure head of global warming. Now, we enter into discussions on the complexities behind reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the politics of climate change. But in times like these, where fires rage on the West Coast and floods overtake the East Coast, I can not help but question whether these doomsday stories are all too accurate.
National news every night reported on the fires in Paradise and Malibu, so I will skim the details. The Paradise fire alone burned over 150,000 acres. Air quality in Northern California surpassed China and India with AQI levels exceeding 350 in some places and an average level of “hazardous,” where everyone, not just sensitive groups, could experience health effects (Wu, Dineen 2018). Visibility images in contrast to clear days are striking. The effects are apparent. However, what does 300+ AQI and visible smoke indicate in a measure that we can comprehend?
According to Richard and Elizabeth A. Muller of Berkeley Earth, “The rule of thumb is one cigarette per day is the rough equivalent of a PM2.5 level of 22 μg/m3. Of course, unlike cigarette smoking, the pollution reaches every age group.” Taking this into account, within the Bay Area, I breathed in the equivalent of smoking 12 cigarettes a day, while people in Butte County reached up to 25.3 cigarettes per day.
As shocking and terrifying as this is, it is starting a discussion. When public health and environmental issues overlap and effects become visible, the clear results of climate change become relevant to everyone. Of course, damaging health-induced awareness is not the goal, but it has triggered action. Within Alameda County, wildfire smoke has resulted in health workshops addressing climate change adaptation measures. It has sparked implementation of nature-based solutions, such as mass tree planting efforts to sequester carbon and improve air quality. It has rallied an immense amount of support for the communities affected.
So yes, I do have a mask. And I hope soon enough, it will no longer be necessary.
Muller, R. A., & Muller, E. A. (2015, December 17). Air Pollution and Cigarette Equivalence. Retrieved from http://berkeleyearth.org/air-pollution-and-cigarette-equivalence/