10 November 2017
Exposure to air pollution can increase the risk for osteoporosis and broken bones in older adults, a new U.S. study suggests.
Firefight in Sonoma County reaches second week as flames force thousands to evacuate
KEVIN MCCALLUM AND RANDI ROSSMANN
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT | October 15, 2017, 12:53AM
| Updated 4 hours ago.
An army of firefighters with a larger aerial arsenal at their disposal held their ground and made some gains Saturday on devastating wildfires ravaging Wine Country, but evacuation orders that forced thousands from their homes before dawn and a rising death toll were clear reminders of the peril that still grips the region.
Northeast winds that arrived early Saturday whipped up a new fire in the hills outside eastern Santa Rosa, and spread an existing blaze outside Sonoma, prompting another round of nighttime evacuation orders.
Thousands of Santa Rosa residents were forced to leave â€” some for the second time since last Sunday â€” while others faced their first mandatory orders in Sonoma.
Aware winds were on their way, firefighters were posted in potential trouble spots ahead of time as law enforcement officers â€” their bullhorns and sirens blaring â€” drove city blocks in Santa Rosa ordering people out of their homes before 3 a.m. They knocked on doors and in some cases returned to homes two or three times, authorities said.
By that time, flames had crept beyond Pythian Road below Hood Mountain Regional Park, east of Highway 12. Authorities were concerned the fire would advance on Oakmont, the retirement community across the highway from the park, and into the city.
The mass evacuation carried out by officers went smoothly, authorities said, allowing firefighters to focus on their job. It was a marked contrast with the helter-skelter operation on the night of the initial firestorm, they said.
â€œIt was flawless,â€� Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tony Gossner said of the morning evacuation of Highway 12 between Calistoga Road and Adobe Canyon Road in Kenwood. â€œThatâ€™s what we can do when weâ€™re prepared.â€�
No homes burned in the area on Saturday, but smoke and flames from the Oakmont fire framed a terrifying backdrop against the mountains, with vineyards and at least one landmark winery â€” Ledson â€” in the foreground.
Fire officials characterized Saturdayâ€™s overall efforts across the region as a success. Firefighters largely held their lines and increased containment of most blazes, including the Tubbs fire, which consumed more than 2,800 homes in Santa Rosa on Monday, and killed at least 22 people in Sonoma County.
The death toll across Northern California from wildfires that started last week increased to 40, including eight people in Mendocino County, six in Napa and four in Yuba County.
Fires in Sonoma County have burned 94,370 acres. Containment on the Tubbs fire grew to 50 percent on Saturday.
To the south in Sonoma Valley, the 46,106-acre Nuns fire jumped a containment line early Saturday morning on the northeast side of Sonoma.
â€œCrews experienced some very intense, some very difficult fire conditions. They did an outstanding job,â€� said Sonoma Valley Fire Chief Steve Akre, estimating theyâ€™d likely saved hundreds of homes in the fireâ€™s path.
Gusty winds in hilly east Sonoma neighborhoods created what one soot-covered firefighter called â€œislands of fires,â€� threatening homes on Lovall Valley Road. At least three homes burned down on Castle Road less than 2 miles from the historic Sonoma Plaza.
Containment on the Nuns fire was 15 percent Saturday night.
There are now more than 3,400 people assigned to the firefight in Sonoma County. Across the wider region, including Mendocino, Lake, Napa and Yuba counties, where fires are also burning, 30 helicopters, 8 air tankers, and 3 massive 747s are making water and retardant drops, Cal Fire officials said.
â€œItâ€™s definitely a huge help that we have such a huge force of aircraft available to us,â€� said Amy Head, Cal Fire spokeswoman.
The aircraft have been particularly helpful in more remote areas, including the 11,246-acre Pocket fire near Geyerserville.
Lines on the Pocket fire held Saturday, with officials reporting little growth. Containment was at 15 percent.
â€œWe held everything we had on the west, north and south. Itâ€™s the east part thatâ€™s the biggest concern,â€� said Cal Fire Battalion Chief Marshal Turbeville. â€œThereâ€™s no good control on the east side.â€�
That section is burning toward The Geysers and beyond into Lake County. Growth was slow and Cal Fire officials in Lake County were less concerned about the threat Saturday night.
In Santa Rosa, ridgetop flames early Saturday lit up the eastern horizon, frightening residents who fled west. Some hunkered down in the parking lot of the Safeway on Calistoga Road, watching the firefight. After daybreak they saw aircraft, including a hulking 747 supertanker, douse the Oakmont fire with retardant.
The forecast Saturday night called for winds up to 25 mph out of the north, better conditions than Friday, but not ideal for corralling the fires.
The Tubbs fire, which now stretches across three counties, vexed firefighters at its eastern flank on Mount St. Helena. About 30 crew members on Saturday night drove to the top of the 4,341-foot mountain and started a hike down the southwest side, working the fireâ€™s edge as it pushed further into southern Lake County.
Lit by headlamps and carrying chainsaws, the firefighters cut away thick brush in the flamesâ€™ path to remove dry, thick fuel.
By dawn, the hope was for calm weather so planes and helicopters could move in and â€œbeat up on it,â€� said Greg Bertelli, a Cal Fire division chief helping run the north end of the fire.
An advisory evacuation remained in place for fire-scarred Middletown on the other side of the hill. Advisory and mandatory evacuations orders also remained for areas in and around Calistoga.
Sonoma Countyâ€™s Coronerâ€™s Office Saturday reported two more bodies found in the wake of the fires, in Mark West Springs and Fountaingrove.
Family members were being notified and authorities expected to identify more of the deceased today.
Two bodies also were found Saturday in Napa County. Sally Lewis, 90, and her caretaker, Teresa Santos, 50, were found in the remains of a home in the 1900 block of Soda Canyon Road.
The rising death toll and unprecedented damage, particularly in Santa Rosa, left visiting dignitaries aghast.
â€œThe devastation. The horror. The displacement. Itâ€™s truly something that none of us will ever forget,â€� Gov. Jerry Brown said at a community meeting at Santa Rosa High School.
U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris vowed to secure federal resources to support the area through what they predicted would be a long recovery.
â€œItâ€™s going to be overwhelming. Itâ€™s already overwhelming,â€� Harris said.
They encouraged people to seek assistance, particularly at the newly established assistance center set up by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in downtown Santa Rosa. The service hub, open daily from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. at 427 Mendocino Ave., drew hundreds of fire evacuees on Saturday.
â€œI lost everything,â€� said Felis Domingues, a 70-year-old Fountaingrove resident who was at the front of the line. â€œAll my personal documents are gone.â€�
Staff Writer Nick Rahaim contributed reporting. You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or email@example.com. You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 707-521-5412 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wind carried smoke from the Wine Country fires as far as Mexico, over 550 miles south of the North Bay.
NASA's MODIS satellite passed over California on Friday, and the images it captured show a thick line of smoke projected from Santa Rosa out into the Pacific Ocean, parallel to the northern edge of Mexico. The hazy trail measures over 550 feet long.
It can be challenging to put the devastation of the Wine Country fires into perspective, but when viewed from such great heights, one's cognitive distance quickly shrinks.
Editorial: California burns: Where’s the president?
Chronicle Editorial Board Updated 5:16 am, Sunday, October 15, 2017
Photo: DOUG MILLS, NYT
IMAGE 1 OF 92 President Trump has tweeted on many issues this week — but not a single one about the deadly California fires.
As raging wildfires devour the lives, homes and dreams of Californians in an unprecedented scale, one voice has been conspicuously mute through day after day of crisis: President Trump.
This is not a man who is reticent to let Americans know what is foremost on his mind. He is also someone who should have learned by now — after devastating hurricanes and the Las Vegas massacre — that Americans expect their president to step forward with empathy and resolve in moments of national trauma.
Yet Trump has offered no more than a few perfunctory words about the Wine Country fires that have left at least 40 dead, consumed thousands of structures and stretched the physical and mental mettle of the dedicated firefighters and medical professionals to the edge of exhaustion.
On Tuesday, before welcoming the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, Trump said he had spoken with Gov. Jerry Brown and that the federal government would stand with the “people of California and be there with you in this time of terrible tragedy and need.”
SONOMA, Calif. — Some of the worst wildfires ever to tear through California have killed 31 people and torched a vast area of the state’s north this week, but the reach of the blazes is spreading dramatically further by the day, as thick plumes of smoke blow through population centers across the Bay Area.
Everything now smells burnt. Hills and buildings are covered in a haze. Residents nowhere near the front lines of the fires now venture out wearing air masks. On a hillside above the Russian River, a broad and menacing band of fire is turning a blue sky into a gray miasma of soot.
Air-quality, based on levels of tiny particles that can flow deep into the lungs, is rated “unhealthy” across much of Northern California, and smoke has traveled as far as Fresno, more than 200 miles to the south. The effects are many: schoolchildren are being kept inside during recess, the Oakland Raiders canceled their outdoor practice on Thursday to prevent players from breathing in the bad air, and doctors are reporting an increase in visits and calls from people with lung and heart trouble.
It is the 31 deaths, however, a toll that surpasses the official number of people killed by the single deadliest wildfire in state history, that has horrified Californians. The Griffith Park fire of 1933, in Los Angeles, killed 29 people despite burning a mere 47 acres, according to officials.
Late Thursday, the authorities said they had identified 10 of 17 people who were killed in Sonoma County. Most were in their 70s and 80s, and most were found in houses. One was found next to a vehicle.
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California’s Wildfires: Why Have They Been So Destructive? OCT. 11, 2017
California Wildfires Death Toll Rises to 29 as Vast Region Is Scorched OCT. 11, 2017
‘Everything Was Incinerated’: Scenes From One Community Wrecked by the Santa Rosa Fire OCT. 10, 2017
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“We have found bodies that were nothing more than ash and bones,” said Robert Giordano, the Sonoma County sheriff. In some cases, he said, the only way to identify the victims was by the serial numbers stamped on artificial joints and other medical devices that were in their bodies.
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William Roman, 13, wore a face mask as he watered plants in Santa Rosa. Credit Jim Wilson/The New York Times
Because the fires have sent so many residents scrambling for safety, separating them from relatives, the authorities have received reports of 900 missing people and have deployed 30 detectives to track them down. Officials said they had confirmed the locations and safety of 437 people and were still looking for the other 463.
If they cannot find them by phone or online, they send search and rescue teams with cadaver dogs to the homes — if the homes are accessible, which in many cases, they still are not.
“It’s going to be a slow process,” Sheriff Giordano said.
Statewide, there were 21 major fires still burning on Thursday, which had consumed more than 191,000 acres since the outbreak began on Sunday night, said Ken Pimlott, the chief of Cal Fire, the state firefighting agency. The number of separate fires rises and falls often, as new blazes flare up and old ones merge, but the size of the devastated area has grown steadily.
Underscoring the vast scale of the crisis, a line of fire that appeared to span at least two miles descended into Alexander Valley, a wine grape growing region in Geyserville along the Russian River. Thick white columns of smoke poured from the forested hillside above the vineyards as the fire crept down into the valley.
Health officials were particularly focused on young children, who are at a higher risk than adults from dirty air. They breathe faster and take in more air than adults because they run around more. They also have smaller airways, so irritation in those narrower pipes is more prone to cause breathing trouble.
“People with pre-existing heart and lung disease, the elderly and young children should stay in the house with the windows closed,” said Dr. John Balmes, an expert on the respiratory effects of air pollutants at the University of California, in both Berkeley and San Francisco.
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Firefighters in Sonoma looked at a wall of smoke rising from the Norrbom Fire burning across the valley. Credit Jim Wilson/The New York Times
Certain masks can filter out fine particles, but surgical masks are useless, and so are the ones used to protect against big particles. The masks that work are a type called N95, available in many hardware stores.
Nancy Barkley, 40, a nurse from Indiana who is on a 13-week assignment unrelated to the fire emergency, drove dozens of miles from Santa Rosa to find face masks.
“I kept on driving because they were out everywhere,” she said, pulling down her surgical mask to talk.
Northern California is accustomed to wildfires and occasional wafts of smoke that drift with the winds. But nothing like this.
“I’ve lived here 50 years — I’ve never seen it this bad,” said Paul Ackerley, a 90-year-old World War II veteran.
Mr. Ackerley was walking through his neighborhood Wednesday when a woman stopped her car and offered him a mask.
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Smoke hung in the air in Sonoma’s town square on Thursday. Credit Jim Wilson/The New York Times
People closest to the fires have the greatest risk of health problems. There, heavy smoke can include toxic substances emitted when man-made materials burn. Plastics can release hydrochloric acid and cyanide.
“Smoke inhalation can kill you,” Dr. Balmes said. “There’s no doubt about that, but it’s all dose-related. If you breathe in a lot of smoke from any fire, especially a fire in a building with man-made materials that can emit these toxins, you basically have chemical burns of the airway.
“Just like your skin can slough off when it’s burned, the airway lining can slough off. It can be life-threatening. People have to be intubated and put on a ventilator,” he said.
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Hospitals near the worst fires are struggling as they continue to take in patients.
At Santa Rosa Memorial, the city’s largest hospital, technicians installed a large air filtration system to clear smoky air from the hospital lobby. The hospital has handled 130 fire-related cases since Sunday night, when the fires began. Bus drivers in the city have been issued face masks.
“We’ve seen patients who have chronic lung disease, like emphysema, generally older patients, which is really exacerbated by the smoke,” said Dr. Chad Krilich, chief medical officer for St. Joseph Health, which includes Santa Rosa Memorial, another hospital and other facilities in Sonoma County.
“For some of them, it’s really life-threatening,” he said, adding that patients even without asthma or other lung problems are coming in with breathing trouble. Most are being treated in the emergency rooms, which would normally see 105 to 135 patients a day, but are now seeing 150 to 180 a day.
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Capt. John Clays lit a backfire on Wednesday in Sonoma County. Credit Jim Wilson/The New York Times
Their inpatient count rose at first, but they have been transferring patients elsewhere, “because we are at risk of evacuation, too,” Dr. Krilich said, adding, “We know at least 108 of our employees are homeless, and 46 others have had to evacuate.”
Steve Huddleston, vice president for public affairs of NorthBay Healthcare, said the network has two small hospitals and three outpatient clinics in Solano County, east of the fires. One of its outpatient clinics is less than a mile from the fire line, but still operating.
In the emergency rooms and the clinics, he said, “we’re seeing 100 patients a day with respiratory distress and asthmatic attacks from the smoke.”
Many have chronic lung disease or asthma, but not all.
“All of our beds are full, and they have been for two days,” Mr. Huddleston said.
He added: “We’re on the edge of feeling overwhelmed. The staffing is becoming challenging. We’ve had half a dozen of our physicians or staff members lose their homes in the fires. We have staff members who live in the evacuation zones, and they’re trying to get their belongings and their loved ones out of there.”
In areas directly affected by the fires, many schools have canceled classes for the week, leaving parents scrambling.
On Thursday, William Roman, 13, a middle-school student, was helping his grandfather in a landscaping job at a strip mall in Santa Rosa, watering plants — with a face mask on.
“If we’re going to play outside we need to wear a face mask — that’s what my mother says,” William said.
Depending on the winds, the smoke can range from heavy to none. In parts of Santa Rosa on Thursday, there was something resembling a blue sky. Yet even when the smoke was not visible, the outdoors smelled like a fireplace.
Thomas Fuller reported from Sonoma, Calif., and Denise Grady and Richard Pérez-Peña from New York. Matt Stevens contributed reporting from New York.
This Saturday, Oct. 14, in Monaco, He Qiaonv will announce the first step in a $1.5 billion plan that may represent the largest-ever personal philanthropic commitment to wildlife conservation.
The number isn’t the only thing that’s surprising about the announcement. The source might equally raise eyebrows: The donation isn’t coming from a known Western conservationist like Paul Allen, but from a landscape planner-turned-environmental steward who’s based in Beijing.
Madame He represents a new wave of self-made Chinese philanthropists unafraid to spend; her seven-year pledge stands at more than a third of her current $3.6 billion net worth, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
“[China is] pivoting to a new narrative in record speed,” said Tom Kaplan, founder and chairman of Panthera, the leading wild cat conservation organization and He’s first international partner. “Their [global] reputation has suffered by being viewed as the scourge of the elephant and tiger—and they want to reverse this.”
As part of their partnership, He’s namesake Beijing Qiaonv Foundation (BQF) is pledging $20 million toward Chinese snow leopard and other projects at Panthera—significant for an organization whose annual operating budget hovers around $14 million. And doubly significant given that threatened cats in China had yet to be put under such a bright spotlight as, say, lions in Africa.
With the emergence of Chinese leadership in this area, Kaplan says Qiaonv’s pledge stands to change the face of cat conservation forever. “One day this event may be seen as a watershed.”
Private Wealth, Public Commitments
In China, domestic private conservation work still requires the collaboration of the government, as private landownership—and therefore, privately managed nature reserves—are not allowed under Chinese law. But under Xi Jinping’s leadership, these private-public partnerships are becoming possible.
Xi has emerged as an unlikely environmental leader after the U.S. dropped out of the Paris climate accord. Skeptics may think of this as rhetoric aimed at filling a political gap, but he has already made moves by banning the illegal ivory trade by the end of 2017, putting forth a long-term proposal to eliminate gasoline-powered cars, and creating the country’s first tiger and Amur leopard reserve near the Russian border. It’s one of 30 to 50 new conservation zones the government has promised by 2020.
All this stands in sharp contrast with other realities in China: Combating air pollution, the most visible sign of China’s environmental issues, continues to be a work in progress. And the country is still a major proponent of coal, despite cuts to its overall energy consumption.
But change is underway. “When the Chinese government decides to do something, they do it,” Kathryn Sheridan, CEO of a Brussels-based sustainability communications consultancy, told Reuters. “It’s not the talking shop that we see in Europe.”
Kaplan likens this moment in Chinese history to 19th century America, when the U.S. was making the move from rural to industrial society. “The water and air were being polluted in the rush for economic growth, and wildlife was obliterated—we nearly destroyed our own national symbol, the bald eagle,” he explained. “No nation has a monopoly on virtue, but it is also true that we can learn from history. The Chinese are experts at precisely that.”
Madame He agrees that the collaboration of China’s ultra-rich with their government marks a turning point for the country. “The public awareness of environmental protection is gradually increasing in China,” she told Bloomberg.
From Landscaper to Global Conservationist
Madame He’s affinity for the environment is what drove her into landscaping and resource management in the first place. But her vision for how she could contribute toward the greater good of the planet has evolved over time.
“At the very beginning, the dream of our business was to build 100 of the most beautiful parks in 100 cities of China,” said He of Beijing Orient Landscape Co., the company she built from scratch and continues to oversee as chairman. What she found along the way were polluted water systems and depleted urban ecology.
In 2012 she founded Beijing Qiaonv Foundation with the goal of resolving some of the world’s most pressing environmental issues. Among her priorities were establishing key conservation areas within her home country; identifying native species in the greatest need of protection; and lobbying the government, partnering with international organizations, and supporting domestic NGOs to create meaningful change that could impact global biodiversity and carbon dioxide levels.
As He put it, “We believe that protecting China is to protect the whole Earth.”
Private investments like hers matter. As we see happening now in the U.S., official Chinese priorities could easily shift, unraveling or putting a halt to progress that was quickly made. Partnerships with global players such as Kaplan and Bill Gates, who has worked with He through the China Global Philanthropy Institute (CGPI), mean that He’s fundraising commitments are being given extra measures of accountability. Just as important, they’re also being given a proven toolkit with which to succeed.
A Training Kit Imported From the West
With 79 projects already underway in 26 provinces—including everything from Asian elephant conservation to wetland protection—BQF didn’t need international validation or support to start making a difference. But at last year’s East-West Sustainability Summit in Honolulu, which was convened in partnership with CGPI, He shared a table with some of the world’s biggest players in conservation, including Nicole Mollo, the executive director of environmental philanthropy at the Recanati-Kaplan Foundation, the Panthera founder’s private organization.
“Things [in China] are changing under the global radar,” said Mollo, who went on to broker the partnership between Panthera and BQF, helping to establish both the financial scope and environmental goals that the partnership would support. “They have the will and frankly they have the resources—what they are missing is a middle tier of expertise. They don’t know what it means to manage a protected area, to train a ranger, or to work with communities and livestock.”
That’s why the partnership with Panthera marks a meaningful shift in He’s work: With the organization’s help, BQF will create and staff two protected snow leopard reserves that will serve as pilot areas and can be scaled over time, while simultaneously underwriting a wildlife management training program for Chinese conservationists. Then she’ll turn her attention to building hundreds of urban classrooms where “hundreds of millions of people can visit and learn” about conservation.
Big Goals, Big Impact
Even if He only accomplishes a quarter of what she sets out to do with her $1.5 billion pledge, she stands to make a massive impact.
In some ways, she already has. While the $20 million contribution to Panthera matches the commitments made by several global figureheads—Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi—a 10-figure pledge is “unheard of.” That’s according to Mollo, who has facilitated some of the largest recorded contributions to conservation organizations over her years at the African Parks Foundation and the Wildlife Conservation Society.
She said the largest donation she’s seen on record was a $65 million commitment over 10 years; pledges in the hundreds of millions, like Gates’s recent $5 billion pledge to his health care- and education-focused foundation, are generally made to universities, hospitals, or cultural institutions with naming opportunities attached to them. In the conservation world? It’s not something she’d ever seen before. To wit, a spokesperson for the National Audubon Society confirmed that the organization’s recent “large donations” have rarely reached the seven-figure level—and its largest contributions have come from groups like the MacArthur Foundation rather than individuals.
Added Mollo, “I would be the first one to bash China for what they’ve done wrong, but that strategy will not get us anywhere. And when they put their money where their mouth is, it is our job to support them.”
NAPA, Calif. — Home Depot is sold out of face masks, people sleeping in shelters have bandanas tied around their faces and residents even 50 miles away from the fires in northern California find themselves coughing and hacking as smoke and haze blanket the area.
The air quality index for San Francisco, Silicon Valley and the area around the fires was predicted to hit 180 on Thursday, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, or nearly five times what's considered safe.
That's even worse than famously polluted Beijing, whose southern suburbs were measured at 154 on Thursday by the U.S. embassy there.
"The federal (safe) standard is 35," said John Balmes,a professor of medicine at the University of California-San Francisco and expert on environmental health.
Residents who signed up for alerts from local authorities were barraged with air quality health advisories and Spare-the-Air alerts. Schools cancelled recess, teams cut sports practices and parents received notices that weekend football and soccer games might not be held.
The air quality level has been in the "unhealthy" to "very unhealthy" range since the fires began early Monday morning and is expected to stay bad as long as they continue. Wind and geography mean that the haze-affected area extends well beyond the towns where the fires are burning, putting millions of people in harm's way.
"It's smoke, it's particulate matter, it's even toxins from burning plastics and homes. All have very irritating qualities. People will have stinging eyes, trouble breathing, scratching throats and running noses," said Catherine Forest, a physician and expert on environmental toxins at Stanford Health Care in Palo Alto, Calif.
The levels of small particulate matter reported near the fires and further south around San Francisco are especially dangerous for those with pre-existing lung and heart disease, such as asthma, COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) and any kind of heart disease.
The best advice is to simply stay indoors with the windows shut and air conditioning or heaters set to recirculate air, said Forest.
"Don't go out if you can avoid it, don't exercise if you can avoid it. Keep the elderly, small children and anyone with heart or lung disease inside," she said.
But for the hundreds of thousands of people who have to go about their daily work, not to mention the tens of thousands in the fire area, that's impossible advice to follow.
A mask, but not just any mask
For them, the best bet is to wear a face mask. But it's got to be an OSHA-certified N95 particulate filtering mask.
"Not the flat hospital-type masks people sometimes wear. Those are worse than useless because they give you a false sense of security" and don't filter out the most dangerous small particles, said Forest.
The N95 masks have been in short supply in the Bay area due to the fires. At a Home Depot in Fairfield, Calif., where a fire was burning north of town and some areas were under evacuation watch, a steady stream of customers came in looking for masks. But the shelf was bare.
One man asked a Home Depot staffer if there were any left and when he was told no, asked if he could buy the one hanging around the staffer's neck.
"You're not the first guy who's offered that," said the staffer, who declined both to sell the mask and to give his name.
At an Orchard Supply Hardware in Berkeley, Calif., a woman answered the phone, "Good morning Orchard Supply, we are sold out of all masks, how may I help you?" The store was working on getting an emergency truckload of masks.
Johnston Medical, also in Berkeley, was one of the few stores that still had some of the masks recommended by the CDC on hand. Clerks scrambled to help shoppers find masks in picked-over boxes. After hanging up from yet another call, one clerk turned to the other: "Guess what they wanted?"
The empty shelves are only very local, unlike other times, said Balmes. During the global SARS outbreak in 2012 there was a global shortage.
"The Chinese were buying them all up," said Balmes.
When people do find the masks, there are tricks to making them as effective as possible. First is to get the right size. While hardware stores typically only sell the large size of the masks, they actually come in three sizes, small medium and large. Try medical supply stories for the smaller sizes that tend to work better for women and children, experts suggest.
Then bend the flexible metal strip at the top of the mask so that it fits the curve of the nose, to get it the tightest possible.
"They have to seal around, like a snorkel mask," said Balmes.
Such masks are commonly worn by people in cities like Beijing and Shanghai, where residents live with dangerous air quality for much of the year. By Thursday, they were becoming a regular sight on the streets in Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino.
For those in their cars, the best advice is to keep the windows rolled up and put the air system on recirculate rather than having fresh air come in from the outside.
"You can run the heater or the air conditioner, as long as you've got it on recirculate," said Balmes.
Overall, the poor air quality shouldn't pose a long term threat to healthy individuals as long as it doesn't last more than another few days, say the experts.
Healthy lungs are remarkably self-cleaning, said Forest. They’re lined with mucus-coated, hair-like projections called cilia. The mucus catches the tiny particles that we breath in and then the waving, beating motion of the cillium moves them up and out of the lungs.
“It’s kind of like a little escalator. It carries it up out of your lungs and you either swallow or cough it out. Either is fine,” she said.
Another option is to run a home air filter. As long as it’s got a HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filter can catch most, though not all, fine particles, defined as 2.5 microns in diameter or less, which can irritate lungs.
“They’re so small you can’t see them, but they’ll make you cough,” said Baumes.
The trick with HEPA filters is to change the filters, said Forest. You can’t just buy them and run them forever without putting in a new filter, "or they end up not doing anything at all," Forest said.
Contributing: Jessica Guynn, from Berkeley, Calif.
In 41 European countries, 534,471 premature deaths in 2014 can be linked to air pollution, the European Environment Agency (EEA) reported. Within the 28 countries of the European Union, that figure is 502,351.
Germany saw the highest number of deaths attributable to all air pollution sources, at 80,767. It was followed by the United Kingdom (64,351) and France (63,798). These are also the most populated countries in Europe.
"As a society, we should not accept the cost of air pollution," EEA Executive director Hans Bruyninckx said in a statement.
Transport, agriculture, power plants, industry and households are the biggest emitters in Europe, the agency said.
Investing in cleaner transport, energy and agriculture can help tackle this problem, Bruyninckx continued.
Despite these deaths, air quality in Europe has gradually improved, the EEA also pointed out.
Fine particulates most deadly
The EEA based its numbers on measurements of fine particulate matter (PM 2.5), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and smog (O3).
According to the report, fine particulate matter alone accounted for around 428,000 of these premature deaths in all of Europe (399,000 in the EU).
Particulate matter is largely generated by vehicular traffic, but also comes from agriculture, energy production, industry and heating.
NO2 is a pollutant that can primarily be traced back to diesel fuel combustion. European cities such as Stuttgart have struggled with nitrogen dioxide emissions repeatedly exceeding permitted limits.
Ground-level smog or ozone (O3) is produced when sunlight reacts with nitrogen oxides and a volatile organic compound in the atmosphere. Nitrogen oxides (NOx) come from car exhaust, coal power plants, and factory emissions.
NOx, which also include nitrogen dioxide, are the pollutants at the center of the Dieselgate scandal, where numerous automakers were shown to have manipulated sensors to indicate fewer emissions in testing than cars actually produced on the road.
Further action required
"The European Commission is committed to tackling this and help member states make sure that the quality of their citizens' air is of the highest standard," Karmenu Vella, EU commissioner for the environment, said in a statement.
Jürgen Resch, head of Environmental Action Germany (Deutsche Umwelthilfe), pointed the finger at the auto industry and politicians - including German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
"The frightfully high proportion of premature deaths through poisonous diesel emissions is a result of the criminal practice of auto manufacturers," Resch said in a statement, referring to Dieselgate.
Environmental Action Germany reiterated its call for a ban on diesel vehicles.
The EEA report also placed special emphasis on greenhouse gases, pointing out that agriculture is a major source of this and other air pollutants.
The figures were released Wednesday in the agency's 2017 report on air quality in Europe.
NO ONE KNOWS what sparked the violent fires ablaze in the hills of California wine country. In the last five days, the flames have torched more than 160,000 acres across Napa and Sonoma counties, reducing parts of Santa Rosa to piles of cinder and ash and leaving more than 20 dead and hundreds missing. And far from the white-hot embers of destruction, residents from San Francisco to Sacramento to Fresno have been waking up this week to choking fumes, commuting to work under skies tinged orange with dust and soot.
Now, in just a single fire season, ash has rained down on Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angles. That might seem like an anomaly—but it’s more a portent of the country’s new, char-coated normal. As climate-change fuels increasingly large and frequent wildfires that hit closer and closer to densely populated urban centers, the smoke they produce is becoming a public health crisis.
“Over the past two days we’ve experienced unprecedented levels of air pollution in the region,” says Kristine Roselius, a spokeswoman for the Bay Area Quality Management District. Things cleared up slightly on Wednesday, but mercurial weather patterns make it hard to know if the worst is still yet to come. “It’s very difficult to forecast what the air quality will be at any moment because we’ve still got active fires.”
But in general, the forecast is not good. Roselius says they’re especially concerned about the elevated levels of PM2.5—very small bits of liquids and solids suspended in the air, no bigger than 2.5 nanometers across. Particles this small can be inhaled into the deepest recesses of the lungs, into the broccoli-shaped alveolar sacs, where they bypass the body’s filtration systems and slip directly into the bloodstream. What exactly is in those tiny droplets and specks depends on the source, the season, and atmospheric conditions. But it’s the amount of particulate matter more than the type that matters for health.
Good clean air will have fewer than a dozen micrograms of PM2.5's per square meter of atmosphere. Most people won’t notice anything up to about 55 micrograms, but folks with heart or lung disease will likely experience shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing, and chest pain. Asthma sufferers will become more prone to attacks. And as PM2.5 concentrations rise above 55 µg/m3, anyone working or exercising outside will start to notice.
Breathing will start to feel more difficult, and you might get light-headed. Children get hit harder, since they breathe faster than adults. Beyond 100 µg/m3 even healthy adults just walking around will start feeling a sting in their eyeballs and at the back of their throats, chest tightness, and the need to cough. Air monitors near the WIRED offices, 50 miles from the fires, were reading out 137 µg/m3 on Wednesday, and the mucous membrane burn was quite noticeable indeed. Symptoms like these will go away when air quality improves. But breathing in a lot of PM2.5’s can lead to serious long-term health problems.
So first things first: protection. Public health officials like Roselius are advising people with chronic respiratory illness to seek filtered air, either in the city or outside the region. That means buildings with high efficiency mechanical or electronic air cleaners, like these public libraries in San Francisco. If you’ve got air conditioning at home, set it to recirculate mode and make sure all your doors and windows are tightly closed. Three out of five households in California report having air conditioning, although most of these are in the southern parts of the state. Karl the Fog provides all the air conditioning the Bay Area has ever really needed. Good for the energy grid. Bad for those seeking a smoke-free haven.
As for facewear, a bandana worn around the mouth won’t do anything but making you feel like an outlaw. One-strap paper masks or surgical masks won’t help you either. Your best bet: disposable respirators, like the ones found at hardware stores and pharmacies. Look for ones labeled N95 and make sure they’re properly sealed around your face (that goes double for San Francisco’s bearded hipsters).
But the best thing to do is limit your time outside as much as possible. And don’t exert yourself any more than you have to. Because while it’s hard for scientists to predict how bad air quality will be in the aftermath of a wildfire, it’s even harder for them to predict the long-term public health impacts.
Over the years, researchers have tried unsuccessfully to measure the full health effects of wildfire smoke. The general consensus, based on hospital records, is that more smoke means more trips to the doctor for things like asthma, pneumonia, bronchitis, COPD, and heart failure. Children, the elderly, women, African Americans, and those with underlying chronic diseases appear to be most susceptible. But it’s been tricky to prove causation, because air pollution comes from so many places—wildfires, yes, but also tailpipes and factories.
That’s one of the reasons the Environmental Protection Agency just launched a crowd-sourced study to understand the link between wildfire smoke and health impacts. Using an app called SmokeSense, anyone can now send the EPA a snapshot of the air quality in their zip code, report nearby smoke or fire, and list symptoms they're experiencing.
It’s work that’s increasingly important as more acres of American forests go up in smoke each year. “As the climate continues to change, we’re going to see much more smoke, at higher intensities in the future,” says Jia Coco Liu, an environmental health researcher at Johns Hopkins. Based on air pollution from past and projected future wildfires in the American West, Liu and a team of scientists at Yale estimated that by mid-century more than 82 million people will experience smoke waves—more than two consecutive days with high levels of wildfire-related air pollution. People in the new Smoke Belt—Northern California, Western Oregon, and the Great Plains—are likely to suffer the highest exposure.
And there’s one more bit of bad news: Just as fire behaves differently in a city than it does out in the wild, so does smoke. Urban areas, with their concrete roads and walls of glass and steel, tend to stop a fire in its tracks. All those buildings and alleyways prevent wind from blowing fresh embers around. But those same aerodynamics mean that smoke gets trapped in cities. Liu’s latest research, which will appear in an upcoming issue of the American Journal of Epidemiology, found that metropolitan areas, even ones very far away from any actual wildfires, had much higher levels of particulate matter in the air than rural areas. An urban smoke island effect, if you will.
By looking at Medicare billing information, Liu was able to see a corresponding uptick in respiratory and other health issues. She hopes the research will help raise awareness that wildfire smoke is more than a nuisance. “People think of wildfires and they think about houses burning down,” she says. “From the city it can feel like a faraway problem. But actually, it’s the smoke that has a much higher impact.”
Take a deep breath, London.
A startling recent report revealed that every single area of London exceeds the guidelines for a dangerous type of air pollution, in the form of tiny particles that can settle in your lungs.
In the report, commissioned by the charity Centre for London, independent academics have called on mayor Sadiq Khan to do more about the problem, and fast.
“With a larger population than ever before, and an increase in traffic of most types, many of London’s roads and streets are congested, polluting and poor quality places,” says Sir Malcolm Grant, chair of NHS England, who also chaired the report.
This is not a new problem. London holds the record for the worst air pollution disaster ever, the Great Smog in 1952 that saw 12,000 people die in just four days, according to The Lancet.
But it’s not all about disasters; scientific evidence now suggests that air pollution, even at low levels, poses more of a health threat than we previously thought.
The air pollution checker London Air, run by King’s College London, shows air pollution in London tends to be low in most areas, but this does not mean it isn’t dangerous. “When this index was created these levels were considered unlikely to cause any adverse health effects,” the website says. “There is currently debate about whether there is any safe level for these pollutants.”
First, though, it is important to understand how London has become so toxic, and why 7.9 million Londoners live in areas exceeding World Health Organization air quality guidelines by at least 50 per cent.
What is in London’s air?
The air pollution in London comes in a few forms. In terms of gases, there’s carbon monoxide from cold engines or badly ventilated domestic gas cookers, there’s nitrogen dioxide from car exhausts. There’s ground level ozone, which forms when nitrogen dioxide reacts with sunlight and sulphur dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.
There are also tiny particles, called particulates, which float around in the air. These are specks of solids and gases, and those found in London come in many different shapes and sizes. Broadly, they are grouped into two classes: particles smaller than 10 micrometres, PM10; and those smaller than 2.5 micrometres, called PM2.5. The smaller particles are the most dangerous, because they can get into our airways, and even settle deep in the lungs.
“Congestion and pollution will only get worse as London’s population grows unless we adopt new policies and approaches,” says Ben Rogers, director at the Centre for London, which produced the report.
What can be done
A better, more affordable public transport system could be one way to tackle the population problem. “After decades of neglect, [public transport] has seen relatively large scale investment, with extensive programmes of traffic calming, pavement widening, tree planting and pedestrianisation,” the report explains. “The capital has invested heavily in its rail services, so relieving demands on the road network, but also in bus services and cycling infrastructure.”
But there’s a warning: “Air pollution, road safety and the cost of travel are all major public concerns.” From October 23, vehicles in central London will be required to meet minimum exhaust emission standards, otherwise they will be met with a daily £10 fine called the Toxicity Charge, or T-Charge. This penalty is on top of the normal congestion charge.
The latest report does not think the congestion charge is enough, and outlines that it should be potentially scrapped, or at the very least reviewed. The group of academics put forward a few suggestions for what London could do above and beyond this. The ideas included a cashback scrappage scheme for old, high-emission vehicles, encouraging householders to give up parking permits and starting a new code to help different road users interact better.
The sooner, the better. “London needs action now to preserve economic and social vitality, and environmental sustainability in the years to come,” says Grant.
There’s enough wildfire activity in California and Nevada to blanket both much of both states with a layer of smoke in the coming days.
In California alone more than 140,000 acres are burning in large, wildland fires throughout the state. A fire in rough terrain near Reno is also contributing to smoke in northern Nevada.
In just the past two days fires in California’s wine country are thought to have produced as much small particulate matter as all the vehicles in the state produce in a year.
“A lot of that stuff has toxic emissions in it”
Jim Roberts, chemist, NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory
“It’s a lot,” said Sean Raffuse, an air quality analyst at the Crocker Nuclear Laboratory at University of California, Davis.
Although the early estimates are rough, Raffuse said the fires in wine country have probably produced about 10,000 tons of PM 2.5, an air pollutant that’s the main cause of haze in the United States.
By way of comparison, it takes the approximately 35 million on-road vehicles in California a year to generate a similar amount of PM 2.5, Raffuse said.
“Interestingly, these fuels are relatively light compared to some areas,” Raffuse said of the fires in wine country. “For example, I would expect the Redwood Valley Fire burning in Mendocino County to produce 2-3 times more smoke per acre burned.”
The amount of smoke is significant because PM 2.5 is associated with respiratory and cardiovascular problems in people.
And smoke from the thousands of structures burned in some of the fires can be even more hazardous than typical wildland fire smoke, said Jim Roberts, a research chemist from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Earth System’s Research Laboratory.
“It is a little bit different because they had so many structures burn, that is a different fuel mixture … a lot of that stuff has toxic emissions associated with it,” Roberts said.
The smoke and fumes will be most hazardous to the people closest to the burning, he said.
“On the local scale when that smoke stays in the area and you are exposed to it, then it can be harmful,” Roberts said. "People who fight residential fires really worry about those materials. That is why they wear respirators when they go into a house.”
Air quality data from the Environmental Protection Agency showed a large plume of dense smoke stretching from the central California coast, across the northwest corner of Nevada and into southern Oregon and Idaho on Wednesday.
Air quality forecasts in Reno, San Francisco and Sacramento predicted varying degrees of unhealthy air throughout northern California and Nevada.
Big Bend national park is Texas at its most cinematic, with soaring, jagged forest peaks looming over vast desert lowlands, at once haughty and humble, prickly and pretty. It is also among the most remote places in the state.
Even from Alpine, the town of 6,000 that is the main gateway to the park, it is more than an hour’s drive to one of the entrances.
So far from anywhere, it might seem an unlikely location to be scarred by air pollution. Yet for decades its stunning vistas have been compromised by poor air quality that Texas, working with the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is supposed to address.
But environmental advocates fear that the Trump administration’s pro-coal agenda will derail the prospects of improvement, at least in the short term. Tuesday’s announcement that the EPA plans to abandon the 2015 Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon emissions came less than two weeks after the agency revealed a revised plan to combat regional haze in Texas and Oklahoma that critics say will do little to cut pollution.
Chrissy Mann, Austin-based senior campaign representative with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, said: “Taken in combination with the Clean Power Plan, what we’re seeing is an attempt from this administration and this EPA to dig in their pockets and find whatever kind of tricks they think are going to stick to provide a lifeline to the coal industry across the country and here in Texas. It’s disappointing.”
Texas is part of a multi-state coalition that sued to stop the Clean Power Plan, which was placed on hold by the US supreme court last year.
Ken Paxton, the Texas attorney general, said in a statement: “It’s gratifying that our lawsuit against Obama-era federal overreach was a catalyst for repeal of the plan. We look forward to working with the administration to craft a new strategy that will protect the environment without hurting jobs and the economy.”
A back-and-forth between the EPA and Texas over regional haze has been in motion since 1999, when the agency launched a concerted effort to deal with the problem, bidding to improve the air quality in Big Bend national park, Guadalupe Mountains national park and in Oklahoma, the home state of the EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt.
In 2009, the state enforcer, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, issued a plan that would restore “natural visibility” to Big Bend by the year 2155. That was rejected as inadequate by the EPA in 2014.
The EPA wanted Texas to cut 230,000 tons of sulphur dioxide emissions per year to improve visibility and reduce the risk of worsening respiratory diseases and heart disease and damaging soil, water, fish and wildlife.
Two years later, finding “Texas relied on an analysis that obscured the benefits of potentially cost-effective controls”, the EPA replaced parts of Texas’s emissions plan, calling for plant upgrades and a target of “natural visibility” by 2064.
Texas sued the agency and won a stay of implementation in a federal appeals court. The state argued that it is making reasonable progress and, along with industry representatives, claimed that enacting the structural improvements – notably fitting some electricity plants with sulphur dioxide scrubbers – would cost $2bn and be a backdoor way of forcing the closure of coal-fired power plants. That, it said, might put the state at risk of power shortages and increased prices for consumers.
Last December, in the sunset days of the Obama administration, the EPA proposed another scheme that would also have required older plants to upgrade their technology.
But in August this year, Pruitt’s EPA asked a federal court for more time – until the end of 2018 – to come up with a way forward. When the judge refused, on 29 September the EPA unveiled a path that is much more palatable for Texas and the power companies: one that wouldn’t require retrofitting, instead claiming to achieve comparable results with an intrastate cap-and-trade programme. That would give polluters allowances within an overall emissions budget that can be used or traded in a marketplace.
Such programmes can be effective, but Mann, of the Sierra Club, contends that the cap is too high so will not provide any incentive for meaningful reductions. “It’s not very aggressive. In other words, the amount of pollution that coal plants in Texas are allowed to produce is actually higher than our emissions from last year from the same coal plants, taken all together,” Mann said.
The National Park Service and EPA carried out a study in 1999 to understand what causes haze in Big Bend, which is worse in the warmer months. It found that sulphate particles formed from sulphur dioxide sources such as coal power plants and refineries were a key cause.
Researchers discovered that substantial amounts of sulphate particulates came not only from Texas and Mexico, but the distant eastern US. When air flows from the east, production in America’s coal heartlands has an effect on Big Bend’s scenery.
Even if Trump’s efforts to boost coal collide with economic reality and market forces spur more growth in renewable energy, any delays in transitioning to cleaner energy and reduced emissions prolong the haze problem.
Air quality has not improved and ozone has seen a slight deterioration over the past decade, according to Jeffery Bennett, physical sciences program coordinator at the park. “Nitrogen deposition has not changed and remains a significant concern. Desert landscapes are especially sensitive to nitrogen,” he wrote in an email in July.
“Mercury is an emerging concern,” he added, based on levels found in fish; it is unclear whether this is because of atmospheric deposition or the legacy of nearby abandoned mercury mines.
The park faces Mexico and since Donald Trump entered the White House it has attracted attention as a particularly unsuitable place to build a wall.
Still, in a few years, tourists might find that while Trump might have failed to wall off the Big Bend from Mexico, the view is blocked all the same. “If you’re standing here in Panther Junction and not able to see the Sierra del Carmen that’s 20 miles away, because of the sulphates and other pollutions that blew in, you’re missing a big part of why this became a park,” Jennette Jurado, the park’s public information officer, said earlier this year at the main visitor centre.
As farmers seek monetary help, and have openly flouted the ban imposed by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) on burning of paddy straw, a direct confrontation between the agitating farmers and the government is on the anvil.
ANALYSIS Updated: Oct 11, 2017 14:01 IST
1/7 A farmer in Karnal sets crop-residue on fire, leaving behind black ash. Stubble burning has already started on Delhi’s borders and NASA images revealed that red dots — denoting incidents of fire — have started appearing almost everywhere in Haryana and Punjab. (Burhaan Kinu / HT PHOTO)
Not to take any more risk with human health, the Supreme Court has reinstated the ban it imposed on sale of fire crackers in the Delhi-NCR region.
The “direct evidence of deterioration of air quality at alarming levels” that the Supreme Court cited to justify the ban has another player. Paddy stubble burning by farmers during the same period in Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and in the outskirts of Delhi, has also been blamed for chocking the Capital.
What forces farmers to burn the paddy stubbles is the short window available between the harvesting of paddy and the sowing of the next wheat crop. In a fortnight or so, farmers have to harvest the crop, market it, and also undertake sowing operations for the next rabi crop. Burning of paddy straw therefore is the easiest way out. Unfortunately, farmer’s compulsion that leaves him little option but to burn the crop residues has not been understood properly. Instead of helping the farmers, the entire effort is to coerce them into submission.
An estimated 20 million tonnes of paddy straw is burnt in Punjab alone. As the National Green Tribunal (NGT) had observed: “70% of the land covered by agricultural activity was put on fire by the farmers of Punjab who burnt farm residue,” further adding that stubble burning shoots up the carbon dioxide levels in the air by 70%. “The concentration of carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide rises by 7% and 2.1% respectively, triggering respiratory and heart problems. Also, it was stated that soil loses a significant amount of nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium and sulphur, the total loss of nutrients being estimated at 1.5-lakh tonnes per annum.
Farmers are aware of the environmental fall-out. But they need monetary help. Punjab farmers have been demanding Rs 6,000 per acre as a compensation package for the additional costs they have to incur to take measures that prevents burning of crop residues. Instead of providing any financial support, farmers who continue to resort to burning of paddy straw are being penalised, put behind bars, and threatened with withdrawal of farm subsidies. As if this is not enough, a ‘red entry’ against the plot number where stubble burning takes place is now being initiated in the land records.
The farming community is furious. Agitating farmers have now openly flouted the ban imposed by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) on burning of paddy straw, and a direct confrontation between the agitating farmers and the government is on an anvil. Already, several farmer unions have given call to defy the ban, and surely the incidences of crop residues being put to fire are also increasing. The confrontation is likely to worsen in the days to come.
Knowing that imposing any coercive measure against the farming community already reeling under severe distress will be politically incorrect, the Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh is seeking an incentive of Rs 2,000-crore from the Centre to ensure that farmers remove paddy straw without burning it. “We have demanded that the Centre should give Rs 100 per quintal, which comes to roughly Rs 2,000-crore.” And he is right. After all, stubble burning is a socio-environment problem, and the society has to share the burden. Why can’t a proportion of the Rs 50,000-crore proposed economic stimulus package be used for address the problem of stubble burning?
It is a question of priorities. Within weeks of the inflation figures showing a rising trend, the government enhanced the dearness allowance (DA) for the central government employees from the existing 4% to 5%. The hike in DA by just 1% creates an annual additional burden of Rs 3,068.26 crore. If only the government had withheld the 1% increase in DA instalment and instead diverted the resources to address the severe environmental consequences arising from stubble burning, the entire problem could have been fixed by now.
There are two immediate steps the NGT need to ensure. First, ask the government to provide a compensation of at least Rs 200 per quintal to paddy farmers. I am seeking a higher compensation package because the labour costs have already skyrocketed. Also, there is no need to provide any more subsidies for machines like Happy Seeder, Straw Reeper, Chopper, Rotavator etc. Leave it to the farmers. Secondly, make it mandatory for the combine harvester machines to incorporate a bailer, which harvests and bales in one pass. Such a technology is already available for corn. If only NGT had tried to make it mandatory for the combine harvesters to bring in the new technology, crop burning would have been easily relegated to the past.
Devinder Sharma is founder trustee, Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Hyderabad
The views expressed are personal
'Shocking' spike in Hunter Valley's coal-linked air pollution fails to prompt action
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Air pollution from the Hunter Valley coal mines gets so bad for Wendy Wales on occasion that she has called neighbours warning them of a bushfire, mistaking the dust for smoke.
Wednesday was another day of heavy haze in her region as the high school science teacher drove into the upper Hunter town of Muswellbrook where she lectures.
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The Wambo open cut mine in the Hunter Valley. Photo: Anita Jones
"It looked like the whole place had been blown up like a bomb," Ms Wales said. "It was really shocking."
Pollution monitors in the area earlier picked up readings of 103.4 PM10 – particulates of 10 micrometres or less in diameter – at midnight at Warkworth near some large open-cut coal mines.
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The Hunter Valley has many open cut coal mines that residents say should be more tightly regulated. Photo: Dean Osland
Residents received an air quality alert from the NSW Environment Protection Authority at 5am, warning PM10 levels had exceeded the national air quality standard of 50 PM10 per cubic metre averaged over 24 hours.
According to James Whelan, spokesman for Environmental Justice Australia, the EPA has issued about 190 such alerts in the Hunter this year. Last month's tally of 72 of the most he had seen in the five years he had been tracking the pollution readings.
"September was extraordinary," Mr Whelan said, adding the jump does not appear to have prompted any steps by the EPA to curtail mine production or seek other remedial step. "It wouldn't make any difference if there were no alerts, or there were 100 a month."
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PM10 particulates affects health at any level, with the material absorbed into the blood or lungs. Coal mining is responsible for about 90 per cent.
Coal and Allied's Mount Thorley-Warkworth mine reported emitting 9.2 million kilograms of PM10 in their most recent National Pollution Inventory report, up 12 per cent on the previous year, while nearby Bulga mine emitted more than 5 million kilograms of PM10, up 32 per cent, Lock The Gate said.
Stockton in the Lower Hunter had the worst pollution with its daily average PM10 concentrations exceeding the national standard 36 times so far this year.
Camberwell, Mt Thorley, Singleton NW and Maison Dieu recorded the most exceedances in the Upper Hunter, accounting for 65 of the region's 80 breaches.
Fairfax Media asked the EPA whether the September alerts were a monthly record and what steps it had taken to press mines to alter operations.
"The EPA has also required all coal mines to implement best management practice measures to minimise dust emissions via the Dust Stop program," a spokeswoman said.
Mr Whelan said the government's own 2011 commissioned report into best practice stated emissions from material dumping could be minimised by ceasing or modifying activities on dry windy days – weather most of NSW including the Hunter has frequently endured in recent months. Water sprays were another option.
If miners and the EPA had been taking steps, "they were not enough to bring pollution levels down below the [national] standard", he said.
The EJA and Lock the Gate say it is time EPA and NSW's Department of Planning acted on long-overdue recommendations – accepted five years ago – to address and prevent cumulative impacts of open-cut coal mining on air quality.
They say the agencies should tackle the effects of adding more mines when they assess the United Wambo super pit coal and the expansion of the Hunter Valley Operations near Singleton.
"Why is the government still considering more open-cut pits in the worst affected area when they still haven't set basic thresholds to protect people from cumulative health damage?" Georgina Woods, Lock the Gate spokeswoman, said. "There has to be a limit, and we've reached it."
The Department of Planning is currently assessing United Wambo's development application and has commissioned an independent review of its Air Quality Impact Assessment that will include the cumulative mining impacts in the area, a spokesman said.
Jeremy Buckingham, NSW Greens resources spokesman said the government was failing to account for mining's cumulative impacts from particulate pollution to greenhouse gas emissions, habitat destruction or water.
"The scale of modern open-cut mining turns the surrounding landscape into an industrial area, which is incompatible with sustainable agriculture and healthy communities," he said.
For Ms Wales, efforts to curb develop further down the valley are likely to bring little benefit to her area near Aberdeen where the nearby Mount Pleasant mine is rapidly expanding.
"It's just opening up – it's going gangbusters," she said. "It's a megamine."
The painkiller, taken by half of pregnant women worldwide, could be contributing to rising rates of reproductive system problems and neurodevelopmental disorders like ADHD and autism.
"If we look at the rate of carbon emissions, most is emitted by the developed and industrialized countries, but the problem is poor countries like Bangladesh are the main sufferers."
Working with youth writers on a climate-fiction screenplay has opened my eyes to the power of the arts in confronting environmental crises.