The air won’t do you good

Times Staff Writers

Lenore Hittelman is in a quandary faced by many this weekend.

With the air still hazy with soot from the wildfires, do you allow your children to go play?

The choice is made that much harder for the Irvine mother because her oldest daughter’s soccer team is scheduled to play a crucial match Sunday that could determine which division their squad will land in next season.

“We know the air quality is bad, but if the team needs you, what do you do?” Hittelman said as she and her children drove to Tarzana to stay with family to escape Orange County’s poor air. “It’s a difficult decision.”

Whether the activity is youth sports, a hike, a bike ride or simply running errands, the region’s air pollution is forcing people to adjust their routines -- and in many cases, stay indoors as much as possible.


Since Sunday, the air throughout nearly all of the Los Angeles Basin has had unhealthful concentrations of particulates spewed by the fires and spread by strong winds.

By today, air quality is expected to improve to moderate in L.A. County, except Santa Clarita. However, it will remain unhealthful for children and other sensitive people in much of Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, according to the South Coast Air Quality Management District. In those areas, children, the elderly and anyone with respiratory or cardiac disorders such as asthma should not exert themselves, the AQMD said. Small children are particularly vulnerable because they have narrower airways and smaller lungs, and they inhale more pollutants than adults.

“We’ve entered a period with the wildfires where some judgment is required,” Sam Atwood, an AQMD spokesman, said Friday.

Tiny particulates, whether from wildfire smoke, diesel exhaust or some other source, are a serious health threat because they can lodge deep in lungs. When particulates reach hazardous levels, hospitalizations, even deaths, increase from asthma, pneumonia, bronchitis, heart attacks and other respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.

For many people, the risk is temporary -- headaches, stuffy noses, stinging eyes, coughs and shortness of breath. But for others, it can be life-threatening.

Studies show that in the days after wildfires, hospitalizations from asthma, pneumonia, bronchitis and heart attacks rise. Even healthy people often cough and experience headaches, stinging eyes, stuffy noses and flu-like symptoms.

The air is worst in the fire zones, which include Orange County’s Saddleback Valley, the San Bernardino Mountains, the San Bernardino Valley from Fontana to Yucaipa, and Riverside County between Corona and Temecula. In these areas, the AQMD has classified the air as unhealthful, meaning no one should exert themselves, and children, the elderly and people with asthma and other disorders should all remain indoors.

Any place where smoke can be smelled should also be considered unhealthful.

Many youth sports activities have been canceled close to the fire zones, but others are still scheduled for the weekend.

In Bellflower, Lorenzo Quezada was relieved when St. John Bosco High School’s game against Mater Dei High School was canceled. His 15-year-old son, Steve, is a Bosco linebacker and has been feeling the effects of the bad air all week.

“The kids had been complaining about being out of breath, irritations of the throat and headaches even while running inside,” he said.

The levels of particulates in much of the L.A. Basin this week were many times higher than they are on even highly polluted days when there are no fires. Because of winds driving smoke many miles away, the areas with the worst problems included Long Beach, Simi Valley, Riverside and parts of Orange County.

Frank Salisbury doesn’t know if his sons’ flag football games have been canceled today or not, but he’s already decided that the boys won’t go.

“The air’s too heavy,” Salisbury, 62, of Ladera Heights, said. “I wouldn’t want them to play. If you don’t have to, why do it? It’s a health risk to go outside and do any activity.”

Adults, particularly those who enjoy outdoor activities on weekends, face their own dilemma.

After much uncertainty, the San Diego Chargers announced Friday that the team would play its 1 p.m. Sunday home game against the Houston Texans as scheduled at Qualcomm Stadium. The Chargers have been practicing in Tempe, Ariz., since Wednesday because the stadium was being used as an evacuation center.

Yashar Kafi, 31, of Pasadena had just finished a six-mile run around the Rose Bowl on Friday afternoon and said he’d seen only half the usual number of runners outside the stadium in recent days. The typical scene of mothers pushing their children in strollers was absent. He said he found it harder to warm up and harder to breathe.

Christine Walker was sitting in a Pasadena park watching her 2-year-old son, Ryan, run circles in the grass. It was a relief to be outdoors after spending so much time in her home, she said.

“If I were in Orange County, I probably wouldn’t go outside without a mask,” said Walker, 30, who is pregnant. “But we can’t stop going to the park and we can’t stop living just because there’s a fire going on.”

A massive tree-planting drive scheduled for today was postponed in L.A. because of health concerns but will go on in parts of Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties. The event, organized by United Voices for Healthier Communities, was two years in the making and aimed to put 6,500 new trees into the ground. But organizers had to heed the warning of one of the event’s sponsors, the AQMD.

“The whole point was to clean the air,” said the organization’s chairman, Andy Trotter, laughing in slight disbelief at the irony. “A whole lot of people had already dug holes. Certainly the timing wasn’t very good.”

Whether events are canceled or not, organizers have been forced to address the air quality issue.

“Obviously we’re very concerned,” said Muna Coobtee, who organized an antiwar protest in downtown L.A. still scheduled for today. “We’ll provide a lot of water and first aid just in case. But I think people want to be there anyway.”

For Hittelman, the Irvine mother, the smoky air has changed many plans. A book fair at a school library, a meeting of mothers from the school of one of her daughters and a Halloween costume party were all canceled Friday.

She said she’s been stir-crazy staying at home and feels even worse for her oldest daughter Kimberly, 13, who is athletic and isn’t used to having to pass all her time surfing the Internet and playing video games.

“She hasn’t been sleeping well,” Hittelman, 37, said. “She isn’t getting her regular exercise.”

Of course, many parents said it’s also important to put the bad air in perspective.

Susan Hetsroni, 46, who lives on L.A.'s Westside, said the disappointment of having sporting events for her three children canceled paled in comparison with the hardship faced by those who lost homes in the wildfires.

“Given what people are going through, this is a time to count your blessings,” she said. “Your eyes may sting and you have to stay inside, but some people are desperately hurting.”


Times staff writer Ashley Powers contributed to this report.



Health tips in smoky conditions

Pay attention to local air quality reports. If you are advised to stay inside, keep indoor air as clean as possible. Keep your windows and doors closed -- unless it’s extremely hot outside.

Run your air conditioner, if you have one. Keep the fresh-air intake closed and the filter clean to prevent bringing additional smoke inside.

If you don’t have an air conditioner, staying inside with the windows closed may be dangerous in extremely hot weather. In these cases, seek alternative shelter.

When indoors, avoid smoking and using wood-burning fireplaces, gas logs, gas stoves, candles and the vacuum.

If you have asthma or another lung disease, make sure you follow your doctor’s directions about taking your medicines and following your asthma management plan. Call your doctor if your symptoms worsen.

Source: EPA