Farm workers face double threat: wildfire smoke and COVID-19
Workers say they can see haze and feel a burning sensation in their eyes
A year ago, Cal/OSHA implemented new standards for protecting outdoor workers from wildfire smoke. It requires employers to provide proper respiratory protection equipment, such as N-95 masks, when air quality is harmful. Whether or not use of a mask is voluntary or required depends on how bad the air quality is.
The messaging is confusing, according to Richard Stedman, executive director for the Monterey Bay Air Resources District, which monitors air quality across Santa Cruz, San Benito and Monterey counties. When the air is bad, the general public is told to stay indoors.
“So when I see workers being advised that they can go out into the field and exert themselves as long as they have, in their possession, a mask, that’s… that’s not very protective,” said Stedman.
According to the United Farm Workers, enforcement of the regulation is also problematic.
The labor union conducted a statewide poll in late August to get a better understanding of the situation. Of the 350 workers who responded, many from California’s Central Valley, about 84% said they didn’t get a mask. Workers said they could see the haze and felt a burning sensation in their eyes.
With more than a dozen wildfires burning in California and a global pandemic that’s making N-95s hard to find, the state’s Office of Emergency Services answered calls for help. It shipped around 1.4 million masks to county agricultural commissioners in 35 counties.
Scientists: California’s wildfire smoke harming health
Hospital admissions for asthma and strokes have increased
Historic wildfires burning across California have sent a 500-hundred-mile-long, gray blob of smoky air swirling above the western United States, and Stanford researcher Bibek Paudel is seeing the health effects escalate.
In the days after lightning sparked hundreds of fires across the north of the state, Paudel, who studies respiratory illness at Stanford’s allergy and asthma research center, saw hospital admissions for asthma to the university’s healthcare system rise by 10% and cerebrovascular incidents such as strokes jump by 23%. Based on the center’s studies of recent fires, Paudel expects that the number of heart attacks, kidney problems and even mental health issues will also climb.
The research is part of a growing body of scientific evidence painting a dire picture of the effects of wildfire smoke on people, even those living hundreds of miles away. Many researchers worry that those debilitating effects will only intensify the risks of the Covid-19 pandemic. “Wildfire smoke can affect the health almost immediately,” said Dr Jiayun Angela Yao, an environmental health researcher in Canada.
With clouds of smoke from the fires floating around the country, people as far away as Idaho and Colorado are choking on California’s smoke. Since California’s fires started months earlier than usual, experts worry that this will be an especially smoky year.
The worst year on record for California fire smoke was 2008 when lightning fires started in June and continued all summer. Fires from 2017 and 2018 also unleashed huge amounts of smoke.
Paudel and the Stanford researchers found that, since 2011, the number of smoky days occurring each year has increased in California and in the entire western US. Unfortunately, some of the largest increases were in counties with the biggest population centers, such as those around Los Angeles or along California’s central valley.