CORRECTION: A prior version of this story incorrectly said the Chelan-Douglas Health District had opened smoke evacuation shelters. The shelters were on standby because no one was using them. This version has been corrected.
WENATCHEE — If you think breathing smoke for a few days or even weeks while wildfires rage on is no big deal, you’re wrong.
Health officials say even short-term exposure to the hazardous air in Wenatchee that’s persisted since last week is dangerous for everyone, not just those with health problems.
Is it worse than living in Los Angeles for a year? Yes.
Worse than breathing the ash-filled skies after Mount St. Helens blew? Yes.
“We asked all those questions: How does this compare to smoking for a lifetime, or living in Beijing or Mexico City or L.A.? This is much worse,” said Mary Small, spokeswoman for the Chelan-Douglas Health District.
(After publication, the Health District challenged this statement, saying Small was misquoted. The Wenatchee World stands by the quote, and followed up with a new story.)
Air quality monitoring stations in the Wenatchee area are recording small particulate levels that haven’t been recorded anywhere in Washington for at least 30 years, when the state started monitoring air quality, said state Department of Ecology spokeswoman Joye Redfield-Wilder. “This is unprecedented for as far back as we have monitoring data,” she said. It’s also the first time levels have pushed into hazard levels, and is about three times higher than any recordings made since Ecology started monitoring air quality in the 1980s, she said.
Still, Small said, some people don’t seem to be taking it seriously.
Since Sept. 11, when Wenatchee’s air was only “unhealthy,” the health district has put out daily alerts. The air quality in Wenatchee has hit hazardous levels every day since then.
Yet over the weekend, Small said she saw someone driving around in a convertible with its top down, a person jogging, and a young couple with packs strapped to their bicycles trekking through the valley. Not one of them was wearing a mask.
“I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, are people not paying attention?’” she said. “It kind of put me over the edge.”
On Tuesday, the health district issued an emergency declaration due to the prolonged problem. They’ve handed out N95 masks to the Chelan County Sheriff’s Office for deputies who are out issuing evacuation notices, and provided many more to health practitioners for patients who come in with respiratory complaints.
Small said Ecology’s “good” to “hazardous” scale was developed to warn the public about air quality problems.
The numbers used on that scale are arbitrary, Redfield-Wilder said. But they do relate directly to the dangerous particulate matter that can lodge into the lungs, and won’t be coughed out.
Judy Bardin, epidemiologist for the Washington State Department of Health, said monitors are showing that Wenatchee’s air is 10 times worse than federal standards for clean air.
She said state health officials are concerned about the numbers, and particularly the prolonged inversion, and are ready to step in and help local health district if anything is needed.
“We often think that it’s just a concern for people with health problems, but truly, at this level, it could affect anyone,” said Janice Nolen, assistant vice president for the American Lung Association in Washington, D.C.
Nolen said even short-term exposure to high levels of pollution can have devastating impacts. The best known example is London’s Great Smog of 1952, which wasn’t thought to be significant at the time, but which studies later showed resulted in about 12,000 premature deaths.
The eight-day inversion in midwinter trapped coal smoke and other industrial emissions in the city.
“We aren’t sure if there’s a difference between burning wood and coal,” she said, but wood smoke certainly is not safe. “These are serious risks, and people should take them seriously,” she said. “They should stay indoors, and this is not the time to be exercising outdoors. If you can see the pollution, you don’t need to be breathing it.”
Nolen said it isn’t just respiratory problems people should watch.
“We’re talking about levels that can trigger a heart attack, or stroke,” she said. “And the people at risk is a broader group than you might think,” she said.
People with asthma, chronic bronchitis and COPD may feel it the most. But anyone with a cardiovascular disorder, high blood pressure, heart problems and diabetes are also at greater risk.
In addition, anyone over 65 or under 18 years old should be particularly careful.
Nolen added that although cities across the west have experienced wildfires, not many have prolonged exposure to smoke due to inversion. “We had a situation in Fairbanks a few years back where it looked dark at noon. It’s not unheard of, but this doesn’t happen terribly often,” she said.
Robert Elleman, meteorologist for the Environmental Protection Agency in Seattle, said they’re watching the pollution levels, offering help to state agencies, and working with nearby American Indian tribes to enforce burn bans. “These are very high concentrations of pollution. They’re quite hazardous, and for it to happen so many days in a row — it is concerning and it is somewhat unusual,” he said.
Small said the longer this lasts, the more concerned the health district becomes.
“We’re asking employers to be more lenient with people who are symptomatic, or if they have to take care of a family member, or leave the area,” she said.
Schools in the Wenatchee Valley have canceled outside exercise, including sports practices.
Small added that some buildings, particularly those where doors are frequently opened and closed, may be as bad as outside. If people who work there are experiencing problems, they should go home, she said. And if their home is no better, they should consider leaving the area, or going to an American Red Cross air quality shelter. The Apple Valley Chapter has two shelters on standby, one at the Seventh Day Adventist Church at 5th and Western in Wenatchee and one at the Lake Chelan Senior Center on Trow Avenue in Chelan. Anyone wishing to use one of the shelters can call 663-3907.
And for everyone — not just those feeling symptoms — the health district recommends limiting your time spent outside, and wearing an N95 or P100 mask if you have to be outside for a long time.
“It’s a personal choice,” Small said, but added, “I think people are not taking this as seriously as maybe they should be.”
K.C. Mehaffey: 997-2512