SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — For more than a week, Bay Area residents have been battling headaches, coughs, scratchy throats and clogged sinuses brought on by a layer of unhealthy air draped over the region from the Camp Fire.
The culprit has been a high pressure system stalled off the Northern California coast that is forming an atmospheric wall, halting the westbound movement of the smoke plume over the Bay Area.
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Air quality levels have ranged from unhealthy to hazardous — some of the most unhealthy air to breathe in the world. Thousands now know what an N95 mask is and have formed lines outside stores to snap up the limited supply available.
“It is horrible,” said Shontae Clark of Richmond. “I got kind of nauseated last night walking out in it. So, tonight – I have on a mask.”
Shannon McElyea of San Jose has also been suffering.
“I’ve had a sore throat, froggy voice, burning eyes, and headaches,” she said. “I haven’t been running. I haven’t been walking. I haven’t been doing anything. I really like to be outside.”
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Weekend events have been cancelled including the Big Game college football showdown between the University of California-Berkeley and Stanford for only the second time in 100 years. The first was the weekend after the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Outdoor weddings have been forced indoors, the annual holiday lighting of San Francisco’s Embarcadero Center cancelled and favored tourists destinations like Muir Woods, Alcatraz and San Francisco’s Cable Cars shut down.
When asked to compare the health impact of the bad air on the human body, UCSF Pulmonologist Dr. Meshell Johnson said: “It is on the order of picking up a smoking habit and smoking anywhere from maybe a couple – to 10 cigarettes a day in this period.”
Johnson said that if you blow your nose and what comes out is tinged with soot — that’s a good sign, your body is doing it job to rid you of the larger particulates in the air.
There are three levels of particulates, Johnson said. Very small particulates, medium sized and large. It’s the medium sized particulates that have the largest impact on your health.
“There is that middle group that will actually sort of settle into your lungs,” she told KPIX 5. “What that does is cause inflammation.”
She said to think of your lungs as a self-cleaning oven.
“It’s a regular process for the lungs,” she said. “But in times of bad air quality – it’s a lot more stuff that is getting into your lungs than is usual and so your lungs are working a little overtime to clean up all the bad particulates that have deposited into your airways.”
When the skies do return to normal, Johnson said don’t expect to feel better immediately.
“It’s (the lung natural cleansing process) not going to get everything out immediately,” she said. “It may take a little bit of time for your lungs to kind of get back to their usual state.”
The KPIX 5 team says the unhealthy layer of air will hover over the Bay Area for a few more days until a storm front begins moving in on Wednesday. Then skies should clear.