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Medical Experts Discuss Health Risks Presented By Wednesday Smoke-Choked Skies

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) -- In terms of the health impacts of the ominous orange skies created by particulate matter from Northern California wildfires Wednesday, residents may be relieved to learn that some protection was provided by the marine layer.

As it turns out, the bigger particles of ash blanketing cars are not the biggest health concern.

"When we talk about particulate matter, that's 10 microns or larger. We can inhale those and they can only go part way down our respiratory system. They get stuck midway down because of their size," said Dr. Mary Prunicki, Stanford Director of Air Pollution and Health Research.

Wednesday Fire Updates

The orange ominous skies can be deceiving.

"Believe it or not, we're seeing currently moderate to good air quality at ground level throughout the Bay Area except for isolated pockets," said Ralph Borrmann of the Bay Area Quality Management District.

When the finer particulate matter triggers air quality sensors to register high AQI numbers, the short term health effects arise.

"There can be very acute impacts including sudden cardiac death, heart attacks arrhythmias strokes," said Prunicki.

Research also shows an uptick in asthma attacks and increases in pneumonia cases, but the long term effects aren't quite as clear.

"Firefighters exposed to wildfire smoke their entire career have increases in certain types of cancers and other health problems, but that's an active area of research," said Prunicki.

"People with pre-existing heart and lung disease are the ones at most risk," said UCSF Pulmonologist Dr. John Balmes.

An Air Quality Index of 50 or below means good air. When it's 100 or more, it's no longer safe for sensitive groups including pregnant women, children, seniors, and people with respiratory conditions like asthma.

"When they inhale small particles that can lodge deep in the lungs like wildfire smoke that can cause more airway inflammation," said Balmes.

Doctors say increased inflammation can lead to more serious issues for higher risk individuals

Medical experts also said that for people already infected by coronavirus, breathing in bad air can increase their risk of a more severe case of COVID-19.

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