Marek Warszawski

Fresno was a dangerous place to breathe Sunday. Why weren’t we told with any urgency?

Fresno and parts of the central San Joaquin Valley experienced some of the worst air quality on record Sunday, when the simple act of breathing outdoors could’ve been hazardous to your health.

Not just for children, seniors or people with asthma who are sensitive to air pollution, but everyone with a functioning set of lungs. We were all at risk, especially during physical activity.

“It was a good day to be indoors on a treadmill,” said Evan Shipp, a consulting meteorologist based in Fresno.

And yet, you wouldn’t really know it. No dire public health warnings were issued and very little fuss was made. Unless you checked airnow.gov, the federal air pollution monitoring site, or carefully sifted through information provided by the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, nothing much seemed amiss.

How come?

I’ll try to explain, even if the answers don’t entirely satisfy.

Opinion

Let’s start by saying it was a very unusual air weekend. On Friday, smoke from the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County started drifting our way and Saturday the gusty winds fueling the wildfire mixed that smoke with our own region’s ample supply of dust.

Those two factors, wildfire smoke and wind-blown dust, resulted in concentration levels of coarse particulates called PM10s that were more than three times what the Environmental Protection Agency considers healthy to breathe.

One air monitor, located near the corner of First Street and Dakota Avenue in central Fresno, recorded nine consecutive hours Sunday with PM10 levels above 500 micrograms per cubic meter.

air quality fresno.jpg
Air quality turned “hazardous” Sunday in Fresno with smoke from the Kincade fire in Sonoma County mixing with wind-blown dust to raise coarse particulate pollution to levels more than three times the national health standard. Larry Valenzuela lvalenzuela@fresnobee.com

The EPA considers PM10 levels above 151 to be “unhealthy” and above 200 to be “very unhealthy.” Which means 500 (or 699.4, as that monitor measured from noon to 1 p.m.) is more or less the equivalent of sucking on a tailpipe.

Unfortunately, the Valley Air District’s Real-Time Air Advisory Network doesn’t monitor PM10s. It only measures PM2.5s (which are smaller and more harmful than PM10s because they can be absorbed through the lungs into the bloodstream) as well as ozone levels.

Neither, apparently, do those $250 PurpleAir monitors that have gained popularity in recent years. They didn’t register the weekend’s extreme PM10 levels, either.

Health cautions not enough

So if all you had to go by were the Valley Air District’s RAAN network or PurpleAir readings, you’d be under the mistaken impression that everything was hunky dory.

That is until you went outside and felt your lungs burning and your eyes watering.

“That’s the crux of the issue,” Shipp said.

To its credit, the Valley Air District issued two public health cautions, in the form of news releases, on Friday and Saturday due to the wildfires and blowing dust. And if you check valleyair.org, the first thing you’ll see is a bright red banner that better explains why RAAN levels don’t account for PM10s.

However, the Valley Air District’s social media pages contained no mention of the hazardous air pollution. Not until I phoned Chief Communications Officer Jaime Holt on Monday morning and asked why.

“I cannot be certain,” Holt replied. “It could have just been an oversight on our part.”

Holt said the Valley Air District doesn’t have large followings on Twitter or Facebook, so instead it relies on The Bee and local TV stations to spread the news. Fair enough. But it’s also fair to point out the agency might have a larger social media audience if it provided more real-time news to Valley breathers – especially on days like Sunday.

Meeting standards or protecting health?

Shipp, a former Valley Air District supervising air quality planner, said the agency does not want to be alarmists or create panic.

“But when you’re seeing pollution levels that are three times the national health standard, they should probably come up with something a little stronger than (the health cautions) it pushed out,” he added.

This goes back to the common criticism of the Valley Air District: It is more concerned with meeting federal air pollution standards than protecting the public’s health.

Situations such as last weekend only reinforce that view.

Ultimately, people are responsible for their own well-being. If the air outside is brown enough to see or smoky enough to smell, any amount of physical exertion is best avoided. No government agency or air monitor is a substitute for common sense.

Still, there are times when meekly worded public health warnings aren’t warning enough. Sunday was one of those times.

There’s a chance those gusty, dusty, smoky conditions that caused PM10 levels to spike could return by the middle of the week. We can only hope our local air officials react with a little more urgency.

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Marek Warszawski writes opinion columns on news, politics, sports and quality of life issues for The Fresno Bee, where he has worked since 1998. He is a Bay Area native, a UC Davis graduate and lifelong Sierra frolicker. He welcomes discourse with readers but does not suffer fools nor trolls.
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