Sacramento is experiencing some of the worst air quality since smoke from the Camp Fire blanketed the region in 2018, and experts say low-income communities are at the greatest risk for negative health outcomes, particularly people of color.
“We know that low-income communities are disproportionately impacted by low air quality,” said Kaying Hang, senior program officer at the Sierra Health Foundation, a philanthropy organization in Sacramento that focuses on improving health equity.
Hang says that the “wildfire that we’re experiencing will continue to have detrimental impacts on low income communities, and this is particularly due to the fact of where they reside: often in poor neighborhoods where there’s heavy vehicle traffic.”
Pollution from vehicle traffic, and neighborhood proximity to pollutants like freeways, often leads to higher rates of asthma and heart disease in low income communities.
“The notion of race, poverty and education — these are what we’ve come to understand as social determinants of health,” Hang said. “Given all of that, when you’re poor, low-income or you already have pre-existing conditions, it makes you even more susceptible and more vulnerable to poor air quality.”
Low income African-Americans have been found to have disproportionately high rates of asthma and worse outcomes from asthma attacks as a result of where they live and their ability to access health care.
And it’s “well-established that certain components of air pollution not only make asthma worse, but can actually lead to the onset of asthma in otherwise healthy people,” said Anne Kelsey Lamb, director of Regional Asthma Management and Prevention.
She also noted that lower-income residents are more susceptible to wildfire smoke “because they have greater exposure due to things like substandard housing or being in service jobs that require them to be outside.”
Health officials are advising people to stay indoors, keep windows closed and try to plug holes that could let in smoke or outside air.
But Flojaune Cofer, director of policy at Public Health Advocates, added that for those who are unhoused, following this advice is impossible.
“For our unhoused folks, this is a real challenge,” Cofer said. “This is why housing has to be a human right, unlike physical distancing, which can be done inside or outside, there isn’t a way [aside from using an N95 mask] to protect yourself outside from this.”
She added that there’s also an added mental health burden for people of color trying to stay safe during this wildfire season.
She explained: “Not only are we not able to go about our lives in the way we normally would, we also can’t do some of the things we’ve come to rely on for self-care and mental wellness. And, depending on how long this goes on, we should be concerned. People are already vulnerable, people’s baseline level of stress is already very high.”
While this is true for all Sacramentans, low-income people and people of color are already more likely to be experiencing higher rates of unemployment, contracting COVID-19 and stress due to the pandemic.
Experts say that high exposure to micro-particles from wildfire smoke can also have adverse effects on the immune system, and could make people more susceptible to contracting COVID-19.
Some anticipate there could be a spike in emergency room visits from low income people with asthma or heart conditions in the next few weeks, depending on how long air quality remains hazardous in Sacramento.
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