Air Quality and Wildfires

CNEHJ is educating and engaging nurses on the negative health effects attributed to poor air quality and wildfire smoke.

Air Quality

California has the dubious distinction of having many of the worst air polluted cities in the country. More than 90% of Californians breathe unhealthful air during some part of the year, harming people’s health and the economy, not counting fire smoke-related air pollution.

Air pollution particles are categorized by their size. While our natural defenses can help remove some coarse particles, fine and ultra-fine particles can get deep within the lungs, with the smallest able to enter the bloodstream.

Size comparison of human hair, PM10, and PM2.5. Four PM2.5 particles are equal in width to one PM10, and roughly five PM10 are equal in width to human hair.

Health Risks

Women and Children

  • PM2.5 exposure alters size of children’s brain development resulting in cognitive and emotional problems
  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) exposure is associated with brain development problems resulting in slower processing, ADHD symptoms, and neurodevelopment
  • PAH exposure during pregnancy is associated with low birthweight babies
  • Fine particle exposure during the 3rd trimester of pregnancy is associated with three times the risk of having a autism
  • Fine particle exposure during the 2nd/3rd trimesters is associated with high blood pressure in the child early in life
  • High levels of pollution during the first 8 weeks of pregnancy is associated with high risk for neural tube defects (i.e., spina bifida, anencephaly)


  • Air pollution exposure is associated with lung development, asthma, and COPD

Cardiovascular Disease

  • Air pollution is associated with impaired blood vessel function, calcification of arteries, and lower “good cholesterol”
  • Air pollution exposure during pregnancy is associated with hypertension during pregnancy


  • Air pollution is associated with breast cancer
  • Occupational exposures to benzene in air is associated with leukemia and non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma

Psych/Mental Health

  • Air pollution is associated with increased risk of mental health and psychiatric services for schizophrenia, bipolar, and depression
  • Fine Particle exposure and nitrogen oxide are associated with increased risk of a mental illness diagnosis at 18 years old

Older Adults

  • Fine particle exposure is associated with increased risk for dementia
  • Air pollution in general is associated with Parkinson’s Disease, Alzheimer’s, and other types of dementia
  • Long-term exposure to air pollution hastens physical decline.  This is more pronounced in poor communities and communities of color

Rural Dwellers

  • Fine particle exposure is associated with asthma signs and symptoms
  • Proximity to large scale animal feeding operations is associated with acute lung function problems with children

California’s Air Pollution

Most of the worst air polluted cities are in the Central Valley.

Where the combination of agricultural pollution from tilling and spraying, the vehicular pollution from two major north/south highways with lots of truck traffic, pollution from the oil fields in and around Kern County, and the now ubiquitous fire season’s smoke are all compounded by a geography that tends to keep the pollution within two mountain ranges. Coastal communities tend to have far healthier air.

Landscape photo with several transmission towers in the mid ground and smoke stacks in the background.

Air Pollution by Zipcode

In California, we can view our air pollution levels in real time through the Air Quality Index Website. Here’s the key to the map’s color coding:

The AQI Scale uses colors to represent air qualities on maps, where green signifies good air quality, yellow signifies moderate air quality, orange signifies air quality unhealthy for sensitive groups, red signifies unhealthy air quality for all populations, purple signifies very unhealthy air quality for all populations, and brown signifies hazardous air quality for all populations.

You can also put your zipcode into the AirNow page and get find the status on an hourly basis as well as a forecast for tomorrow’s air quality.

Air pollution is regulated nationally by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency where basic pollution standards are established for a set of 6 pollutants known as Criteria Air Pollutants, explained on the EPA’s Criteria Air Pollutants website.

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) is the subagency with the California Environmental Protection Agency (known as CalEPA) that is responsible for regulating air pollution in the state.

Beyond CARB, geographical regions in California are further divided into air districts. These districts are CARB’s primary partners that work to protect California’s air quality. Check your region’s air quality entity at CARBs list of California Air Districts.


The California Environmental Protection Agency, or CalEPA, is comprised of the Air Resources Board, CalRecycle, the Department of Pesticide Regulation, the Department of Toxic Substances Control, the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, and the Water Board.

Asbestos and Poor Air Quality

“Poor air quality is an increasingly worrisome issue. Especially with wildfires raging in the west and with growing urban populations, the resulting air quality is concerning for the residents living there, but for those who are already dealing with respiratory or lung issues, it can be especially troubling

The Mesothelioma Center has put together a great guide on what to know for mesothelioma sufferers dealing with poor air quality , and another one detailing some basic information on mesothelioma .”