The Bay Area Air Quality Management District has expanded its clean air filtration system program, officials announced Thursday as the region faces unhealthy levels of air quality throughout the wildfire season.
The program provides portable air filtration units to unsheltered and low-income residents.
This week, it was expanded to include three new counties, Marin, Napa and Solano, covering the entire Bay Area to provide about 3,000 people as wells as emergency and cooling centers with portable indoor home air filtration units, according to the air district.
“Communities like East San Jose, Vallejo, West Oakland and Chinatown in San Francisco as well as the Tenderloin, they all endure more air pollution than other parts of the Bay Area,” Veronica Eady, senior deputy executive officer of policy and equity, said at the air district.
Increased levels of air pollution, in addition to smoke from wildfires, threatens the health of many residents, especially those with respiratory issues.
“So together with the community, we’re working to address this unequal pollution burden that impacts these neighborhoods,” Eady said.
Exposure to unhealthy air quality, even if its short, can leave people with eye, sinus and throat irritation, even for people who are healthy. For those with respiratory disorders, it can be much worse.
One study showed that within two hours of exposure to wildfire smoke, there was an increase in ambulance calls for respiratory and cardiac distress, said Mary Prunicki, director of air pollution and health research at Stanford University.
“Wildfire smoke is something we all have to take very seriously,” Prunicki said. “The particulate matter coming from (wildfire smoke) is probably 10 times more toxic than particulate matter and air pollution— just general air pollution from cars and industry.”
Studies conducted in her lab also showed that wildfire smoke affects immune systems and has been linked to increases in COVID infection rates and death rates.
But she said the air filtration systems provided by the air district will help mitigate some of the health impacts.
“Given that our health care resources are stretched, you know, any type of prevention that we can do is going to benefit all of us,” Prunicki said.
Many local leaders celebrated the expansion of the program during the news conference at the San Jose Women’s Home.
But for Margaret Gordon, a founding member of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, this has been longtime need that should have been fulfilled years ago.
“We have been advocating for indoor air filtration for over 15 years,” Gordon said.
In Oakland, for example, there are high levels of black carbon from diesel; but the city also is close to many of the northern California wildfires burning.
“So, we are really getting the double whammy,” Gordon said.
Eddie Ahn, executive director for San Francisco based environmental nonprofit Brightline Defense, said poorer San Franciscans also get double the trouble, because many live in small residential units, some that are only 80 square feet.
“They have little room to breathe and really need these devices,” Ahn said.
The same is true in disadvantaged South Bay communities, executive director of Sacred Heart Community Service Poncho Guevara said.
The air filtration systems cost about $100 to $150, but will be free for those who qualify for the program.
The best place to put an air filtration system in a house is in the bedroom because that is where most of someone’s time is typically spent, said Tracy Lee, is a manager of the wildfire preparedness program at the air district.
Lee also suggested residents make sure windows are properly sealed or use caulking to properly seal them. Another option is to roll up towels and place them at windowsills or in front of doors.
It is imperative to keep spaces clean and dust free, and keep heating and cooling systems on the recirculating setting so air circulates in your house, and does not draw polluted air from outside, Lee added.
Residents are also encouraged to replace air filters to efficient ones like the MERV 13 air filter.
More information on wildfire preparedness, school air quality recommendations, information on air quality data and other resources can be found at at baaqmd.gov/wildfiresafety.
To get more information about the Clean Air Filtration Program or see if you qualify, email AirFilters@baaqmd.gov.