Chronicle Misses Chance to Include Pollution Risks in Coverage of Chevron Fire



In the wake of this week's Chevron refinery fire, the San Francisco Chronicle missed an opportunity to present information about the health effects of particulate matter and a long history of research linking it to hospitalizations for cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses, such as asthma.

Although air samples in the Richmond area have not been fully analyzed for particulates, the billowing smoke suggests that concentrations of particulate matter were above normal levels during the fire. In an early statement, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District said it was “still trying to determine whether particulate matter from the smoke is what sent people to the hospital.”

  • D.H. Parks/Flickr(CC)

The reporters should have noted that there is strong epidemiological evidence from around the world that links particulate matter — such as that produced by the smoke from the fire — to adverse health effects. Exposure has been associated with respiratory problems that include asthma attacks, coughing, chronic bronchitis and shortness of breath. Research also shows that heart attacks often increase when particulate levels increase. The health problems can require hospitalizations and emergency room visits, and even lead to premature death.

Local air quality authorities said in a statement that “particulate matter has immediate health impacts — itchy, watery eyes, increased respiratory symptoms such as irritation of the airways, coughing or difficulty breathing and aggravated asthma” (Air District Statement on continued Chevron investigation, 8/9/12). Those at an increased risk include children, the elderly, and people with a preexisting heart or respiratory conditions.

Even though air quality regulators initially said the fire and smoke had no apparent adverse effects on air quality, a statement released a day later corrected that assertion. One pollutant measured — acrolein — was above the state's guideline for toxic air contaminants. They also state “there was the potential for significant smoke in the area that impacted residents in the downwind neighborhoods. The likely source of health impacts from the fire is particulate matter from smoke.”

The reporters do a nice job of capturing several important aspects of the incident, including providing some information on acrolein and whether the number of air monitors in the community is adequate. Nonetheless, readers would have benefited from knowing that particulates from smoke and other sources are a well-documented cause of respiratory and heart problems that can result in hospitalizations.

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