Air Quality and Wildfires

CNEHJ has a Nurses’ Air Quality & Wildfires TEAM that is helping to educate and engage nurses about farmworker health and safety

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. The smallest category is known as fine particles and these measure less than 2.5 microns (PM 2.5) which are invisible to the eye.

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 a 200% increase risk for a child with 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 blood vessel function, calcification of arteries, lowered “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.

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:

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 US Environmental Protection Agency where basic pollution standards are established for a set of 6 pollutants known as Criteria Air Pollutants, explained here on the EPA’s 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 here


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 .”