The sight of high school football players dashing across smoky fields on an August morning was shocking. Even more surprising were the words from coaches and athletic directors from local school districts who explained to one TV news reporter that all was fine.
True, if we’re talking fine particulates. The air was filled with “fine” that day, as were the lungs of young athletes, with smoke from the deadly, weeks-old Ferguson Fire now trapped on the Valley floor.
Fine particulates are soot and solidified gases so small that thousands of them would fit on the period at the end of this sentence. They directly damage and inflame the respiratory system and enter the bloodstream through the lungs. Heart and asthma attacks, strokes and other immediate and lifelong health impacts follow, mostly to sensitive groups, which include minors and outdoor athletes.
So, what happened? Just eight months since the last air pollution crisis hits, the Valley and again people who should know better are failing to protect their own health and that of children. The answer lies partly in a statement from the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. “Ash particles…will not be detected by our monitors.”
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Particles come in all sizes, and as an air district representative explained to The Bee’s Lewis Griswold, the agency’s particle pollution monitors – it has only two for the entire Fresno-Clovis metropolitan area – are focused on the chunks less than 2.5 microns in size. However, federal health regulations and Air Quality Index levels include everything between 0 and 10 microns.
But as Fresno Unified athletic manager Brett Mar told ABC 30 reporter Brianna Ruffalo on Aug. 1, “So far the numbers from the air control district…are OK.” Apparently Mar hasn’t read the district’s fine print about fine particles, which advises people to rely on their sight and sense of smell. Their crude warning appears on some alerts and press releases, but not in the text messages and email warnings sent by the air district.
Those students might as well have been smoking cigarettes as playing football.
Nonetheless, our Valley-wide public health agency is proud of its monitoring network and automated warning system. It recently entered into a multimillion-dollar contract with a local company to launch a brand advertising-style campaign to promote its Real-Time Air Advisory Network.
There is a major problem with this approach, as air district board member and director of the Central Valley Health Policy Institute John Capitman explained to board members, district staff, and an ad agency representative earlier this year. The goal of health communications, he said, is to change behavior, like giving up smoking, and to be effective it must employ a far different strategy than simply building brand awareness and loyalty.
We have a health communications crisis nearly as bad as the air pollution itself, stemming entirely from a government agency whose once cutting-edge monitoring network is almost outdated and whose communications strategy is ill-designed.
Fortunately, new technology is democratizing air pollution monitoring. For starters, every smartphone’s basic weather app includes air pollution levels and links to health guidelines. Better yet, a network of privately installed Purple Air particulate matter monitors is spreading rapidly throughout the Valley. There are a dozen already in Fresno and Clovis, and their lasers provide up-to-the-minute readings of PM2.5 rather than hourly updates. Individually purchased and installed by homeowners and community-based organizations, the data is shared online at purpleair.com.
Throughout these recent smoke-filled weeks the Purple Airs have provided thousands of Valley residents with health-protective, real-time readings superior to the district’s delayed deliveries of hourly averages topping out at 2.5 microns.
Finally, thanks to a new state law from Assemblymember Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens, more monitors will soon be installed in California neighborhoods and towns most impacted by toxic air contaminants, meaning the Sunnyside High students treated to a smoky morning workout will be better protected because nearly all Southeast Fresno neighborhoods qualify.
But for now, coaches should check for smoke, too, and the air district’s communications strategy needs to be righted immediately. Politically, that will be a challenge for an agency with a governing board dominated by conservative politicians who don’t seem to mind high pollution levels and to prefer an uninformed, disengaged public. An alarmed citizenry would demand action in the form of pollution reduction, primarily from farms and dairies, gas and oil fields, and developers of warehouse distribution centers and sprawling subdivisions, none of which has ever been on the air board’s to-do list.
Kevin Hall has lived in Fresno since 1971, where he works as an air quality advocate and community organizer.