Bay Area's orange skies give way to gray haze, but poor air quality increases health risks

ByChris Nguyen and Amy Hollyfield KGO logo
Friday, September 11, 2020
Expert explains how poor air quality could increase health risks
Although our skies are no longer an apocalyptic orange, our air quality has taken a hit once again because of the ongoing wildfires. And with poor air quality comes an increase in health risks.

SAN JOSE, Calif. (KGO) -- New skies Thursday morning brought new concerns to the Bay Area. Air quality officials say even though the orange, dark conditions have passed, the air quality has gotten worse.

RELATED: When will smoke clear and air quality improve in the Bay Area? It could be days, meteorologist says

That eerie orange glow that we saw throughout the Bay Area on Wednesday was because of a layer of smoke and haze blocking most of the sun from shining through. Although conditions appear to be better, our air quality has taken a hit once again because of the ongoing wildfires.

"You breathe it in, it goes through your nose, into your lungs, and it can actually get into your blood stream," said Dr. Tina Sindher, an immunologist and clinical assistant professor at Stanford School of Medicine, who is part of a team conducting research on how wildfire smoke impacts the immune system.

Sindher says the Stanford emergency department saw a 23% increase in stroke patients in the first week following the start of our most recent wildfires.

"Long term exposure to air pollution increases your risk of cardiac disease, your risk of strokes, your risk of asthma exasperations, and also it actually reduces your life expectancy, so you have increased mortality, in addition to all these long-term effects on your body," said Sindher.

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The fog was so thick on Wednesday, it suspended the wildfire smoke over the Bay Area. That layer was stuck, and the tiny particles that contribute to poor air quality couldn't get through to the surface level.

"It's still a tiny particulate matter that is foreign to your body and it is going to incite an immune response," Sindher added.

On Thursday, the marine layer was polluted by the smoke. That effect, combined with shifting winds, meant that our weakened marine layer could no longer hold back all of those tiny air particles that are potentially dangerous.

"Our exposure to it spans a much larger area and a longer time," said Dr. Frank Freedman, a meteorologist and adjunct faculty member at San Jose State University. "It takes the atmosphere a much longer time to flush out this larger mass of pollution compared to the normal situation with industrial PM 2.5."

Freedman says our senses can also be deceiving. Even if you can't smell the smoke, it doesn't mean that the air quality is good.

VIDEO: Dramatic photos capture orange, hazy skies seen all across San Francisco Bay Area

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"Make sure that you keep the indoor environment as clean as possible," said Freedman. "Try not to let the smoke get inside. The indoor environment is the one area, one place that humans have control over."

In terms of air quality, most parts of the Bay Area were experiencing either "unhealthy" or "unhealthy for sensitive groups" as of Thursday afternoon.

"It feels better that we can see the sky today and there's a little bit of sunlight coming through," said Tina Landis, spokesperson for the Bay Area Air District. "But my windows and doors are closed now and I have my air purifier on. We are back to smoky skies."

"Even though I can't smell the smoke, it is bothering my eyes and making it hard to breathe," said Karen Claxton, of Walnut Creek. "So I find myself wearing my mask both inside and out."

Experts say Wednesday was the better day for being outdoors, especially for the old and young.

"Especially with kids, their lungs are still developing," Landis said. "They are more sensitive than adults. If you are seeing unhealthy levels, orange or red AQI in your area, you really need to keep them indoors. I know it is hard."

Orange or gray, either way, residents say this is all impacting their moods.

"I work from home, it was very depressing being home all day and then every time I looked out it was orange and dark it was weird," Lily Cason said about Wednesday.

"It's gloomy. I am looking at the moon or the sun or whatever that is it's like a pink ball up in the sky and it's kind of hard to tell if it is time to go sleep or time to wake up," Claxton said Thursday morning.

Landis said exercising indoors is safe if your windows and doors are closed and you don't smell smoke. She recommends an air purifier for your home to help clear the air. She says she expects the air quality to be poor through at least Friday.

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