UC Berkeley professors discuss health effects of poor air quality

Hazy Sky in Berkeley
Josh Kahen/File
In a UC Berkeley School of Public Health Q&A, campus environmental health sciences professor John Balmes outlined various health symptoms that individauls may experience because of poor air quality. Campus professors discussed how the recent California wildfires have affected air quality, as well as steps Berkeley residents can take to stay safe.

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Amid California’s unprecedented fire season, UC Berkeley faculty discussed the health effects of poor air quality and safety measures Berkeley residents can take.

The Air Quality Index, or AQI, is a measure of particulate matter in the air, according to J. Keith Gilless, dean emeritus of UC Berkeley’s Rausser College of Natural Resources and professor emeritus of forest economics. Particulate matter is composed of solid and liquid substances that are present in the air.

Gilless noted that after burning more than 4 million acres, the California wildfires have released a large amount of particulate matter and drastically increased the AQI in Berkeley. He added that this can lead to significant health effects.

“When airborne particles are inhaled, some deposit in our respiratory tract,” said William Nazaroff, campus professor emeritus of civil and environmental engineering, in an email. “There, they can trigger physiological responses (such as inflammation) that can cause both acute adverse health outcomes and also contribute to long-term health risks.”

John Balmes

Nazaroff added that symptoms resulting from poor air quality include asthma and cardiopulmonary effects that can increase risks of stroke and heart disease. Individuals may also experience irritation of the eyes, nose and throat, according to a UC Berkeley School of Public Health Q&A with John Balmes, campus environmental health sciences professor.

Balmes noted in the Q&A that health effects due to poor air quality can particularly impact older individuals with preexisting health conditions, such as asthma, heart disease and lung disease.

“The type of exposure also matters — how long and how much exposure,” said Elizabeth Noth, campus assistant researcher of environmental health sciences, in an email. “A long term exposure to a high concentration of air pollution will have a greater impact on health than a short term, low exposure.”

While many individuals have used masks to combat the poor air quality, Gilless said ordinary masks that prevent viral transmission will not filter out particulate matter, such as PM2.5, or particulates that have a diameter less than 2.5 micrometers. Gilless added that N95 masks, if fitted properly, are ideal and will filter out 95% of particles in the air.

Some of the best ways to stay safe amid unhealthy air conditions include being able to interpret the AQI and staying inside when necessary, according to Gilless.

Gilless said individuals can reduce indoor air pollution by purchasing air filters and installing double-pane windows. People can also reduce the risk of fire by regularly cleaning out household gutters and switching to nonflammable roofing materials, Gilless added.

“Both communities and households can do their planning ahead of time so they’re prepared to evacuate quickly in response to an evacuation order,” Gilless said. “Natural hazards are a part of nearly every place on the planet, and you adapt and mitigate those hazards as you encounter them.”

Contact Amudha Sairam at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @AmudhaSairam.