SANTA ROSA, Calif. — You don’t need to live near a wildfire to feel the impact of toxic smoke being pumped into the air. Among the most vulnerable to the air quality is children.
“If this was a once-a-year event, and it then it wouldn’t happen again for 10 years, I wouldn’t worry so much," said pediatrician Dr. Lisa Patel, MD. "But climate change has basically made wildfires a yearly, possibly year-round occurrence.”
Dr. Patel, a clinical assistant professor of Pediatrics at Stanford University, says researchers are starting to learn more about the impacts of wildfire smoke on children's health.
A study in Pediatrics found that the microscopic particles in wildfire smoke are 10 times more harmful to children’s respiratory health than pollution from other sources
"What’s burning in wildfires, an entire house goes into flames, a car, and then, it turns into these little particles that we inhale and breathes in,“ said Dr. Patel. "As to how it's going to affect children over time, we just don't know because it has gotten so much more severe, so much more quickly. We'll get the data in 10 or 15 years."
But she says it does put them at risk for asthma, bronchitis, and pneumonia, and can also lead to missed days in the classroom.
“This is a concern and something that should be on everybody’s radar because these fires are so enormous and overwhelming and the wind can blow them into other places.”
And as wildfire season collides with the contagious delta variant, health experts say now is the time to upgrade school ventilation systems.
A U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found that an estimated 54% of public school districts need to update or replace multiple building systems or features in their schools. In some cases, they’re creating hazardous conditions like mold.
“It's important to clean up indoor air quality for kid's health. It always has been. It feels even more important now because of both COVID-19 and the wildfires," said Dr. Patel.
Lessons learned in districts struck by wildfires can help other schools.
“Never thought twice about a fire in this area impacting us like it did," said Ron Calloway, superintendent of Mark West Union School District in Northern California. “With the Tubbs Fire, it was basically a torch, an 80 mile an hour torch, blowing through this block.”
Hundreds of students and staff lost their homes in the 2017 fire.
“When we have a smoke day from another fire, that triggers a lot of emotion from students," said Calloway.
Now, happening every year, he had to become an expert in dealing with toxic pollution.
Each classroom has an air scrubber to remove chemicals, toxins, and viruses from the air. And all heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems have HEPA filters to remove dangerous particles.
"It’s extremely toxic," said Calloway. “I say this to other districts, be prepared. Something is going to eventually happen in your area.”
But Patel sees an opportunity in the confluence of two public health crises. The pandemic prompted state and federal governments to fund upgrades to schools’ ventilation systems.
Last October, the California state legislature passed a bill allocating up to $600 million for upgrades, maintenance, and repairs to schools’ HVAC systems. Federal funds are also allocated through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act of 2020.
Patel's team is working with organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics and the nonprofit Mothers Out Front to educate physicians and parents on how to help school districts access the funds.
“Our schools are being asked to do a lot, and they can't do it on their own," said Patel. “Start the conversation, reach out to your principal to start and say I’m worried about this, what are our school’s plans, and how can I help?"