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Is it Safe to Go Outdoors?

5:01 PM PDT on September 8, 2020

Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

Note: GJEL Accident Attorneys regularly sponsors coverage on Streetsblog San Francisco and Streetsblog California. Unless noted in the story, GJEL Accident Attorneys is not consulted for the content or editorial direction of the sponsored content.

The sky is brown. There's ash floating by. Fires continue to rage all over the state. And at noon the sun looked like a tomato.

But government maps showed air quality this morning in San Francisco and Oakland as "moderate to acceptable" for all groups.

So is it really safe to ride a bike or a scooter or go for a walk in the current air conditions?

That may depend on who one asks--and exactly when one plans to go. "The smoke is high aloft and therefore not impacting us as much down at ground level," explained the Bay Area Air Quality Management District's Ralph Borrmann in an email to Streetsblog. But that changes fast. "The smoke was above the marine layer during the earlier hours, but is shifting as the day goes on. Conditions may deteriorate through tomorrow and improve again by the evening hours according to our earlier forecast. Please check baaqmd.gov for the latest data and video forecast."

Air quality map for the Bay Area at noon--in sharp contrast to the air quality at ground level. Image: CalEPA
Air quality map for the Bay Area at noon. Image: CalEPA
Air quality map for the Bay Area at noon--in sharp contrast to the air quality at ground level. Image: CalEPA

Obviously, going by the map above, someone living in Livermore or Antioch should try to stay indoors. But even in coastal areas things aren't really safe. That's because "shifting as the day goes on" is an understatement - note that as Streetsblog was working on this post, air quality readings were worsening in Oakland and San Francisco. It's confounded because government sources depend on sensors that don't actually give real-time data. "There is a lag time," explained Jenny Bard, director of health partnerships for the American Lung Association. She recommends using the site PurpleAir to check for the most current air quality. But even then, when the winds act up, conditions can be substantially different moment by moment, space by space. "You can be effected by a plume but the person in the next block may not be," said Bard.

She recommends people use their common sense: if the air smells smokey, or if there is ash falling from the sky, try to stay indoors. "It’s important to pay attention to your own experience."

Updates from Cal Fire, as of midday Tuesday. Image: Cal Fire
Fire updates as of midday Tuesday. Image: Cal Fire
Updates from Cal Fire, as of midday Tuesday. Image: Cal Fire

Bard, who commutes by bike in Sonoma and is active with the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, told Streetsblog that the deleterious effects of wildfire smoke are no joke. "Wildfires can exacerbate cardiovascular issues, increase risk of heart attacks and stroke, and, for pregnant women, exposure to air pollution can result in lower birth weights."

She added that an N-95 mask is a good idea for people who have no choice, but "...it’s a last resort to go outside at all, so if those folks who are riding a bike can find any other way, it's preferable." Borrmann agreed: "Don't rely on masks to get you out of that," he added. "Stay indoors with windows and doors closed."

Chart: American Lung Association
Chart: American Lung Association
Chart: American Lung Association

Bard also stressed, however, that when the air is clearer it's just as important that people ride bikes and find other ways to reduce exposure to the regular, day-by-day pollution caused by private automobiles. In the long run, the transportation sector produces more lung-damaging pollution than anything else, she said. "Bicycling is one of the most healthy and climate-friendly forms of transportation," she said, adding that it's important for local governments to continue building protected bike lanes and other safe infrastructure to encourage more people to cycle.

"We hope that the wildfires will be put out soon so we can have clean air again and get more people out on their bikes."

***

For more information on the health effects of air pollution: https://www.lung.org/clean-air/outdoors/what-makes-air-unhealthy/particle-pollution
Tips to protect yourself from wildfires: https://www.lung.org/clean-air/emergencies-and-natural-disasters/wildfires

Bard also asked Streetsblog to mention the Lung Association's "Stand Up For Clean Air" campaign to encourage cyclists to share their story (social media with hashtag #MyCleanAirStory) about why clean air and fighting climate change is so important. "We would love to see cyclists talking about the need for clean air and the urgency of addressing climate change. And certainly the issue of clean air as an environmental justice issue for cyclists especially." Participants’ names will be entered into a drawing for one of nine air purifiers and one whole house system upgrade. The contest ends Sept. 27. Visit Lung.org/mycleanairstory for details. 

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