Though Seattle is known for its beautiful and clean air, that was not a privilege that the Pacific Northwest enjoyed in the final weeks of August. Dozens of wildfires roared throughout British Columbia, Oregon, California and Washington itself, surrounding Puget Sound. It was inevitable that Seattle got caught in the middle of it.
On Aug. 21, the air quality in Seattle was considered unhealthy for everyone. During the weeks of haze, Seattle had the worst air quality of all the big cities around the world — worse than Beijing, worse than Los Angeles. The air was as bad as smoking seven cigarettes a day.
Washington Department of Health stated on their website that “outdoor smoke contains very small particles and gases, including carbon monoxide.” They explained that “these particles can get into your eyes and lungs where they can cause health problems.” Advice from every public health official and advocate was the same: Stay inside.
That’s not great advice for many of us. Only one in every six homes in Seattle has an air-conditioning system. Typically, this isn’t an issue — but with the combination of heat and wildfire smoke, it became difficult for Seattleites to stay cool safely. It was either stay inside your houses sweating or crack the windows open and invite in the pollution.
The website also listed groups of people most affected by natural occurrences like wildfire: Children, the elderly and those with existing conditions. But the list was missing one group. There was no mention of people who spent all of their time outside, without a shelter.
In addition to spending hours each day outside, breathing the air, many of Seattle’s homeless individuals spend nights in shelters or other spaces that don’t have central air. For folks living outside, the weeks of haze meant constant, ongoing exposure to toxic chemicals. And it had impacts.
Now that the smoke has cleared, most of us are back to feeling normal. But for folks who couldn’t get inside to avoid the contaminants in the air, symptoms lingered. Real Change vendors complained of prolonged coughing, painful throats and even vomiting blood.
The question remains, then — what are the health implications of the smoke on groups that were chronically exposed to it?
In spite of the public health outreach and messaging around smoke inhalation, this question seemed foreign to the health centers. When they were asked, there was a moment of marked surprise that homeless people might be affected by the smoke.
Multiple health centers said they haven’t had specific cases of patients that had chronic exposure to the smoke complain about smoke-related illnesses. But then again, they also weren’t looking.
The clinic administrator at Neighborcare Ballard, which serves adults experiencing homelessness, relayed that people with COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) had a harder time breathing and that there was an incident where one of those patients needed extra treatment measures in order to aid their breathing. Besides that, they said, they have been focusing on preventative measures such as passing out face masks and advising people to stay out of the smoke.
Puget Sound Clean Air Agency and other health centers gave similar advice. They encouraged people to simply stay home and limit time spent inhaling the smoke, warning that the smoke can cause trouble breathing, asthma attacks, coughing, irritated eyes and headaches.
Some elected officials were more proactive. City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda requested that the City of Seattle put into place clean air shelters during the worst days of the smoke. The Clean Air Stations were open to anyone, though most were only operational between the hours of 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. Still, it was a start. In a tweet, Mosqeuda said that, in the future, her focus would be on “being better prepared to move people & get masks out.”
Preparation will be vitally important in the coming years as more forest fires are predicted to spread and linger. But what about the damage that’s aleady been done?
Chronic exposure to the smoke can have implications for people in general, but it was inescapable for homeless people. Fortunately, the air quality in Seattle has been fair for the past week and it is projected to stay that way for the rest of the summer.
Editor's note: Iman Mohamed was Real Change’s summer intern. She was amazing and we will miss her terribly. Thank you, Iman!
Check out the full Sept. 12 - Sept. 18 issue.
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