Newsletter: Questions on the long-term effects of wildfire smoke

A plane takes off in a smoky sky
A plane takes off from Whiteman Airport in Pacoima above a blanket of smoke covering the San Fernando Valley on Thursday.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Tuesday, Sept. 22, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

The skies have largely cleared in some parts of California, but before that, we all inhaled the smoke for days on end. We made small talk about Air Quality Index, or AQI, numbers, searched fruitlessly for long-since-sold-out air filters and felt the burning in our eyes and lungs. So what comes next?

Even as the air quality improves, many remain worried about the long-term health effects of the unprecedented amount of smoke that blanketed California. Two of my colleagues, air quality and environment reporter Tony Barboza and Metro reporter Joseph Serna, have a new story looking at the health impacts of all that wildfire smoke.

[Read the story: “How bad is all that wildfire smoke to our long-term health? ‘Frankly, we don’t really know’” in the Los Angeles Times]


According to their reporting, such levels of wildfire smoke probably did significant harm in the immediate term, aggravating or triggering numerous conditions and potentially also lowering people’s defenses against the coronavirus. But there is far less clarity on the longer-term health implications.

“Frankly, we don’t really know about the long-term effects of wildfire smoke because community exposures haven’t been long term before,” Dr. John Balmes, a professor of medicine at UC San Francisco and a member of the California Air Resources Board, told them.

However, as Joe and Tony report, scientists have reason to expect that chronic exposure to wildfire smoke may inflict some of the same long-term health damage as typical urban fine-particle pollution, or soot.

Tarik Benmarhnia, a professor of epidemiology at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography and School of Medicine, told them that wildfire smoke could potentially be even more harmful, citing studies showing that the same concentrations of fine particles, when coming from wildfires, “seem to be way more toxic for the respiratory system compared to PM2.5 from other sources.”

[See also: “Your questions about air quality answered” in the Los Angeles Times]

What to expect this week:

According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s AirNow site, air quality was largely moderate Monday across most of western California, but conditions remain unhealthy in swaths of Northern and eastern California, with particularly bad air quality in and around the Sierra Nevada.

In Southern California, largely moderate air quality is expected Tuesday, according to the South Coast Air Quality Management District. Conditions will be better along the southern part of the coast.

The Bay Area is expected to see largely good air quality through Thursday, with some small pockets of moderate air quality, according to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. But the San Francisco Chronicle warns that haze and smoke could return to the Bay Area over the weekend.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

Fire crews remain in battle mode as efforts to save Mt. Wilson Observatory from the raging Bobcat fire continue. Days after officials announced that firefighters had beaten back advancing flames and the 116-year-old famed observatory was safe, firefighters are battling flare-ups at the top of the mountain. The Bobcat fire is one of six major blazes prioritized by the state, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Monday during a news briefing. The other fires are the August Complex fire, the North Complex fire, the Creek fire, the El Dorado fire and the Snow fire. Los Angeles Times

Newsom defends his actions to fix California’s troubled unemployment agency. The governor again blamed payment delays on the crush of claims filed during the pandemic, an influx that overwhelmed the system’s 30-year-old technology. Los Angeles Times

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Facial-recognition software was used 30,000 times by the LAPD in the last decade. The new figures, obtained by The Times, reveal for the first time how commonly facial recognition is used in the department, which for years has provided vague and contradictory information about how and whether it uses the technology. Los Angeles Times

L.A. servers say tipping is way down during the pandemic. “It’s happening on Melrose in West Hollywood and in downtown,” one restaurant owner said, speculating that the need for servers to enforce safety rules might be hurting gratuities. Los Angeles Times

A man wearing a face shield takes orders from a table of patrons at a restaurant.
If you eat out at a restaurant during a pandemic, your server is risking their health to do their job. Please tip accordingly.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

No place to study, hunger and inadequate computers are hurting Eastside and South L.A. students. The findings call into question ongoing announcements from L.A. Unified School District officials that virtually all students were quickly connected in the spring after campuses shut down in March. Los Angeles Times

Crisis has engulfed the L.A. Times newsroom as prominent editors have been pushed out or demoted because of ethical lapses or other failures. Los Angeles Times

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President Trump said Monday he is likely to name a replacement for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Saturday, as Senate Republicans continued to discuss whether to push for a vote before the election, despite furious Democratic opposition. Los Angeles Times

“Use my words against me.” What GOP senators said about election-year Supreme Court picks in 2016 and now. Los Angeles Times

The Biden campaign staffs up in California: Mark Gonzalez, chair of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party, will be Joe Biden’s California state director. San Francisco Chronicle


A national environmental organization threatened to sue Newsom to halt all new permits for gas and oil wells in the state, saying the governor has failed to protect Californians and the environment from hazards and pollutants released by the state’s billion-dollar petroleum industry. Los Angeles Times


The CDC removed a statement on airborne virus transmission, saying it was posted in error. The new recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had stated that the coronavirus spreads most commonly in the air, through droplets or other tiny respiratory particles that apparently can remain suspended and inhaled. Los Angeles Times

Orange County could stay in the red tier longer if coronavirus testing doesn’t pick up. Orange County is half-qualified for the next coronavirus tracking tier, but the obstacle now is that not enough people who probably should be tested are seeking them, a symptom of “testing fatigue,” said Dr. Clayton Chau, Orange County Health Care Agency director and county health officer. Orange County Register


Californians moved to Oregon for affordable housing. Wildfires left them homeless. Los Angeles Times

A renowned Fresno doctor who spent years serving those from disadvantaged communities died of COVID-19. “He worked 14- to 15-hour days. When people didn’t show up for work, he volunteered... . He played hero till the very end.” Fresno Bee

The Bay Area’s best frozen foods from restaurants: The dumplings, pot pie and pizza choices to upgrade your freezer selection. San Francisco Chronicle

Retired meter maid cars are apparently having a moment in San Francisco. Part of the appeal stems from easy parking — the three-wheeled vehicles are classified as a motorcycle and thus can park perpendicular to the street. SF Gate

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Los Angeles: partly sunny, 80. San Diego: partly sunny, 75. San Francisco: partly sunny, 69. San Jose: partly sunny, 78. Fresno: sunny, 91. Sacramento: sunny, 87. More weather is here.


Today’s California memory comes from Peter Mortimer:

It was the late 1980s and two colleagues and I had just flown in from Phoenix to attend the Photographic Trade Show at the Los Angeles Convention Center. As we drove down Figueroa Street, we passed the historic Original Pantry Cafe and we decided to stop for a late Saturday morning breakfast. They sat the three of us at a table for six. The custom at the Pantry is that empty seats are often filled with other guests from the waiting line. As we were looking at the menu, Alex Trebek and his lady friend were seated at two of the extra seats at our table. They said hello and smiled and we said hello and smiled. Then we all ordered and went back to our separate conversations. Stuff like this only happens in L.A.!

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.