UC-wide AQI report released with recommendations for campus responses

Infographic about aqi and health concerns
Aishwarya Jayadeep/Staff

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At Wednesday’s regular ASUC meeting, Marc Fisher, the UC Berkeley vice chancellor of administration,  announced the release of the new Air Quality Index, or AQI, UC systemwide report, which contains information on the procedures campuses will follow dependent on air quality.

The report includes a matrix which makes recommendations concerning outdoor work, class cancellations, athletic events and other activities that may be impacted by air quality. It also has other AQI-related details, such as how AQI will be monitored and the importance of fitting N95 masks properly.

“By providing access to the matrix, our campus community may better anticipate the actions the campus will be making in response to AQI readings,” said Patrick Goff, director of UC Berkeley’s Office of Environment, Health and Safety, in an email. “I’m happy to report that UC Berkeley has nearly met all of the recommendations already.”

UC Berkeley has made several changes since last year, according to Goff. In accordance with California’s new Protection from Wildfire Smoke emergency standard, employers are required to provide voluntary use N95 respirators for outdoor workers when the AQI exceeds 151. Employees must use respirators if the AQI exceeds 500. UC Berkeley also purchased new air sensors to be installed, which provide real-time air quality data, according to Goff. Prior to this, the closest air sensors were located at Aquatic Park.

While there is disagreement in the public health community over whether or not the use of respirators by the general public is actually beneficial, the campus also recently purchased 40,000 additional N95 respirators, according to Goff.

“The 10-campus UC system will respond to wildfire smoke in a more consistent manner than what was done in the past,” Goff said.

When the AQI exceeds 200, a level considered “very unhealthy,” the decision-making matrix indicates that outdoor work should be suspended, outdoor sports events canceled and classes canceled or restructured.

When the AQI exceeds 150, or an “unhealthy” level, the report recommends that campuses “consider” moving outdoor classes indoors, making N95 respirators available for voluntary use and increasing campus shuttle services.

“This specific language wouldn’t be binding, but it’s a strong step forward in making campuses more responsive to student needs in situations of deteriorating air quality,” said Varsha Sarveshwar, ASUC external affairs vice president, in an email.

The most severe wildfires in California’s history have occurred over the last three years, according to the report. Last year, several campuses in Northern California, including UC Berkeley, were impacted by drifting smoke conditions and an AQI that reached “very unhealthy” levels. The guidance offered by public health and environmental agencies seemed to conflict, resulting in confusion and complaints of perceived inconsistencies across campuses.

To help remedy this, the UC Office of the President, or UCOP, formed the systemwide air quality protocol working group in May 2018 to explore operational and health issues in relation to air quality, as well as develop recommendations to be implemented across all campuses, according to the report.

The final report was delivered to UC President Janet Napolitano in September. In October, she directed chancellors across all UC system campuses to begin implementing these recommendations immediately, said UCOP spokesperson Stett Holbrook in an email.

“The report is a valuable resource to the University and the implementation of the recommendations will ensure consistent actions to help all UC locations prepare for and respond to wildfire smoke events that negatively impact air quality,” Holbrook said in the email.

Contact Taylor Rudman at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @TaylorRudman.