Experts say persistent winter air pollution in Marin poses health risks

Health experts advised caution Friday as the sixth consecutive “Spare the Air” alert was issued for Saturday, but they say aren’t seeing a dramatic increase in health problems — possibly in part due to the advisories.

“If we’re not seeing a spike, it may be because this is an effective way to protect people,” said Dr. Matt Willis, Marin County public health officer.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District issues Spare the Air alerts when fine particulate air pollution reaches unhealthy levels. Wood burning, the largest single contributor to particulate air pollution, is banned during these alerts, and advisories are issued warning certain populations to limit outdoor exertion.

“There is really good evidence that this is something to take seriously,” said Janice Nolen, the American Lung Association’s assistant vice president of national policy.

“Fine particles do shorten life,” Nolen said. “They can cause heart attack and strokes. They can cause asthma attacks. And more recently, long-term exposure has been linked to lung cancer.”

Nolen said it is believed that particulate matter from burning coal for heat in London caused the death of 12,000 people in 1952.

The district tailors its advisories to the amount of pollution it expects on a given day. On Saturday, the air in many parts of Marin is expected to be “unhealthy,” meaning that the district advises active children and adults, and people with respiratory disease, such as asthma, to limit prolonged outdoor exertion.

There was a string of 11 consecutive Spare the Air days in the Bay Area this winter season prior to the current run, said Ralph Borrmann, a spokesman for the air quality district.

“We’ve never had more than four in a row in previous years, so it’s an unusual year,” Borrmann said. He said the unusually dry weather means there have been no storms to disperse the pollution.

The largest number of Spare the Air days in the Bay Area, 30, during the four-month winter season, occurred in 2006-07. With 21 Spare the Air days already this season, that record appears likely to be broken.

Dr. Schuman Tam of the Asthma and Allergy Clinic of Marin in Kentfield, said, “I have been seeing many of my asthmatic patients having asthma attacks the past couple weeks.”

Tam said, however, “It’s difficult to say if it is because of the air quality or viral infections triggering their asthma. Right now, it is the viral infection season.”

Mitesh Popat, chief medical officer at the Marin Community Clinics, which treats Marin’s low-income residents, said, “Maybe there has been a little bit of an uptick in respiratory complaints but nothing drastic so far.”

Popat said he lacks the data to say with any certainty whether a small increase in respiratory cases is caused by air quality or typical winter viral infections.

via Experts say persistent winter air pollution in Marin poses health risks – Marin Independent Journal.

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