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Vogue interviewed Yifang Zhu, UCLA Fielding School of Public Health professor of environmental health sciences and associate dean for academic programs, about the risks of poor air quality from wildfires during the pandemic.
California is on fire. For those of us who make our homes here, another year of “wildfire season” means that evacuation orders, neon sunsets, and smoked-out skies have become familiar, even normal—an unfortunate reality of repeated exposure. Still, there are additional elements that make the 2020 fires all the more unsettling. First, there’s COVID-19; masks are already everyday attire (and, when it comes to N95 masks, in short supply), staying inside is already recommended, and respiratory systems are already at risk. And additionally? “It’s only August,” says Yifang Zhu, Ph.D., professor of environmental health sciences and assocate dean of UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health.
As of Friday night, 1,660,322 acres have burned—a number close to the entirety of the land affected in all of 2018 (at that time the largest area of burned acreage ever recorded in a fire season). On top of this, we have a global pandemic that has already taken over 12,000 lives in California, over 175,000 in the U.S., and over 800,000 globally. Though the numbers alone are breathtaking, there’s something else affecting our respiration: the air quality. Last week, California cities dominated the entire top 10 most polluted cities in the United States and, in some cases, the entire world, according to IQAir.
“The main pollutant that comes from the fire is called particular matter, or PM. The most health-relevant particles are in sizes smaller than 2.5 microns—they’re pretty tiny particles,” says Zhu. She goes on to explain that the national standard for the presence of “PM 2.5” over a 24-hour period is 35 milligrams per cubic meter, which makes for an Air Quality Index of 99. Whenever the index measures 100 or over, she says, it becomes unhealthy.