Understanding Air Quality Impacts of Wildfires with Chisato Fukuda Calvert Ph.D
“An ethnographic look into how complex the air pollution problem is, is important because it’s not a symptom, it’s a structural problem.” –Chisato Fukuda Calvert, Ph.D.
Air quality is drastically affected by wildfires, which can lead to health risks that extend beyond the immediate danger of the fire itself. The region where the fire occurs is usually at the highest risk of air quality deterioration. However, smoke plumes can develop and travel far distances, impacting areas well beyond the wildland-urban interface.
Wildfires are an urgent matter that has been burning for decades. From the natural history of wildfires to their role in the environment, we know there’s a lot to understand. That’s why we’re dedicating today’s entire podcast to understanding the relationship between wildfires and air quality.
In this episode, Jennifer sits with Dr. Chisato Fukuda Calvert, the Interim Director of Open AQ and member of After the Fire Board of Directors. They talk about the urgency of the air pollution problem, the culture, equity, and politics around air pollution, and how to build trust and connection to help the community better navigate this systemic issue. Dr. Chisato also shares her study on air pollution and how it affects our physiology.
Wildfire smoke and its health impacts are something that can occur without warning and without notice. These natural disasters, unfortunately, happen all too often, but we are not left without resources. Tune in as Dr. Chisato shares practical ways we can safeguard our health and that of our family.
- 01:33: Living with Air Pollution
- 08:01: Navigating a Systemic Issue
- 12:33: The Central Work in Disaster Recovery
- 18:01: A Basic Necessity for a Big Job
- 20:53: Air Quality and Equity
- 25:54: The Threshold of Air Pollution
- 34:28: Cost-Effective Air Purifiers
- 39:14: Finding the Silver Lining
- 44:04: An Opportunity to Do Better
05:45: “An ethnographic look into how complex the air pollution problem is, is important because it’s not a symptom, it’s a structural problem.” –Chisato Fukuda Calvert, Ph.D.
07:46: “Wildfires is absolutely our new reality. We need to adapt our strategies as a nation to address this.” –Chisato Fukuda Calvert, Ph.D.
10:33: “There isn’t a space for a community to heal, and so there’s no space to also make those connections.” –Chisato Fukuda Calvert, Ph.D.
14:29: “Rather than thinking about it as numbers or statistics, it’s important to think that these are people’s lives.” –Chisato Fukuda Calvert, Ph.D.
14:48: “Compassion should be the central work in any kind of disaster work.” –Chisato Fukuda Calvert, Ph.D.
16:19: “Let’s do the hard work together so that we can create lasting, impactful change that lessens suffering” -Jennifer Thompson
18:25: “Masks are not part of a disaster. It’s step one in a disaster. If you cannot breathe, you cannot get the work done.” –Jennifer Thompson
30:34: “Visualizing the things that we’re putting into our bodies… is really important to create a safe space for our families.” –Chisato Fukuda Calvert, Ph.D.
40:08: “The intentional work that community organizations are doing with different demographics, I think there are ways to harness that partnership as well with community-based organizations to get the message out there around this.” –Chisato Fukuda Calvert, Ph.D.
44:03: “In a wildfire, there isn’t enough understanding of the impact of air quality as an issue that affects our health globally, that disproportionately affects people of color, and is an opportunity for us to do better.” –Jennifer Thompson
45:17: “We’re going to win if we all get to the other side of this together.” –Jennifer Thompson
Chisato Fukuda Calvert, Ph.D. has over 15 years of strategic partnership experience across international development, nonprofit, and startups advancing equitable solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges driven by climate change. She is Acting Director of OpenAQ, an environmental tech nonprofit dedicated to connecting individuals and communities with open data to advance science, impact policy, and empower people to fight air pollution. She manages all aspects of the organization, including managing a growing open-source air quality platform that aggregates and harmonizes over 17 billion air quality measurements from 136 countries across the globe, partnership strategy and fundraising. She has also spearheaded the inaugural OpenAQ Community Ambassador Program, a global leadership program for air quality advocates dedicated to utilizing open air quality data to spur community action against air pollution. Prior to joining OpenAQ, she served as Director of Strategic Partnerships at Impact Experience, where she served as an advisor and liaison between key financial partners and community leaders to channel investments into underserved communities throughout the U.S. to support climate resilience, disaster recovery, and community development. Chisato is also the Co-founder and former Director of SmartAir Mongolia, a social enterprise that aims to build and distribute affordable air quality purifiers. She led public awareness-raising on the health effects of air pollution, community science, and social outreach across Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, one of the most polluted cities in the world.
She has also held positions at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as a Princeton-in-Asia fellow in Southeast Asia, Trace Foundation in New York, and National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI) in Washington, D.C. In addition to her work experience, she has conducted ethnographic research extensively across Asia including in Mongolia, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Her doctoral dissertation fieldwork focused on health disparities caused by air pollution exposure in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. She has served as a consultant on several environmental health projects and climate mitigation interventions. Chisato earned her Ph.D. in Medical Anthropology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and graduated from Bucknell University with a Cultural Anthropology Honors Degree.
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Jennifer Gray Thompson:My name is Jennifer Gray Thompson, and I am the CEO of After The Fire. Welcome to the podcast, How to Disaster, recover, rebuild and reimagine. In this podcast, we bring you the very best practices, best hearts and great ideas from other disaster affected communities. Thank you for joining us.
So once again, thank you Chisato, welcome to the podcast.
Chisato Fukuda Calvert: Hi, Jennifer, thanks so much for having me. It’s great to be here.
Jennifer Gray Thompson:It is a special honor for me, because I’ve actually met you, maybe three and a half, almost four years ago right after our wildfires in Sonoma County. And at the time, you’re working for another organization also with a great social impact message. I was very honored to be invited to sit with you and other disaster leaders in New Orleans for three days and really to talk about some of the issues around equity and disaster around service delivery and disaster, the role of emergent leadership, and I really came out of that experience enjoying everybody I had met. But with full transparency, you became my favorite. And in part, because like when you shared the story, or the photo of your mother and your origin story, and all that you’ve accomplished in your life. And so, I do want to totally dive into your current work with OpenAQ, and how that relates to wildfire disaster. But if you don’t mind, I would love for you to talk a little bit about your journey and your life for how you got here today.
Chisato Fukuda Calvert: Sure, yeah, happy too. I am a first generation Japanese American. I grew up in a suburb in New Jersey, but I spent my childhood actually toggling between Japan and New Jersey. So I think growing up, I had to really navigate to different cultures and different languages. And because of that, I really had to learn pretty quickly to understand that cultural norms are different to understand, that systems are built differently for different people. And so I think that’s what really prompted my interest in cultural anthropology. So that’s actually what I pursued as an undergraduate at Bucknell University. And while I was studying cultural anthropology it was actually, also coincidentally, my first lived experience with air pollution. So in 2006, I studied abroad in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, which is one of the most air polluted cities in the world.
And I remember distinctly stepping out of the airport and I took in a deep breath, and I immediately started coughing because of this really cold, unfamiliar, thick smog that I was breathing in. And the smell was very distinct. This cold lingering smell, I couldn’t shake it off of my jacket, it wouldn’t cut off my clothes. And during that study abroad period, I lived with a host family in the capital city and we frequently had to go to the district hospital because my host brothers were suffering from pneumonia. It was February at the time, it got to negative 40 degrees Celsius Fahrenheit. It’s actually when the temperature doesn’t matter anymore, what centigrade it is, or whether it’s Fahrenheit, and my host mother was suffering from heart problems. And so having this proximity to air pollution in that way and understanding how people are having to live with this reality was a really impactful experience for me. And during that time, I also understood very distinctly what the inequities around air pollution exposure were. Really the only way to safeguard your health was to leave the city and live in the countryside for three, four months during the most polluted season. Or if you can leave the country and live in South Korea or Japan. So already, there are people who can uproot their lives and go somewhere else for some time and people who have to stay. And the people who have to stay, there’s over 800,000 people in the capital city who have to burn raw coal to stay warm. And obviously, the international community will claim that coal is polluting, but coal is also survival for a lot of these communities.
“An ethnographic look into how complex the air pollution problem is, is important because it’s not a symptom, it’s a structural problem.” –Chisato Fukuda Calvert, Ph.D.
And so I really tried to understand sort of this paradoxical notion of the economy and politics, the culture around air pollution so I kept going back. So I went back in 2010, 2012. And then I conducted my ethnographic research 2014 to 2016 when I pursued my PhD in medical anthropology at the University of Wisconsin Madison. And during that study is when I really did a deeper dive into the structural understanding of the power dynamics, understanding local perceptions and why that’s important. How to craft research questions in a way that provides a comprehend and sort of assessment about air pollution. And so when I was back in law ambassador in 2014 to 2016, I would work alongside coworkers who are obviously most exposed to the air pollution given their occupation and being outside during the high peak hours actually handling the raw coal itself in it staining their hands. I worked with scientists who were from more afar, but really assessing the pollution levels and understanding mitigation strategies. I worked with politicians who really tried to push for policy change, and understanding kind of the dynamics there. I also worked with a lot of residents, I worked with pregnant women. We’re dealing with pregnancy loss because of air pollution exposure. So I think that ethnographic look into how complex the air pollution problem is was really important because it’s not a symptom, it’s really a structural problem. And we really need to think big picture about what are the underlying forces that are perpetuating these inequities.
And it was actually in 2015 when I crossed paths with Christa Hasenkopf and Joe Flasher who are the Co-Founders of OpenAQ. They held their first ever OpenAQ Community workshop in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia when I was there, and so I was asked to participate. I was in a room with software developers, air quality advocates, scientists, journalists who really wanted to use data, and that’s where I really learned the value of Open Air Quality data and how pivotal it is to help shape particular air quality initiatives. And that’s sort of my introduction to the organization itself. I was lucky enough a few years after completing my PhD, I reconnected with Christa, and that’s sort of how I kind of reemerged, I guess, in connecting with OpenAQ as an organization.
“Wildfires is absolutely our new reality. We need to adapt our strategies as a nation to address this.” –Chisato Fukuda Calvert, Ph.D.
But yeah, since 2019, I’ve been with the organization, and I currently serve as the Interim Director of OpenAQ, and really support on business development, on partnership development and strategy. And I feel very lucky that we also reconnected, Jennifer, because I think really being part of the community at After The Fire as a new Board of Director member, I think really helps to shape an understanding that there’s a lot of work to be done around air quality, it’s not something that is just happening in New Delhi, it’s not just something happening in Mongolia, it’s something that we’re all dealing with here in the US. And with the proliferation of wildfires, with the increasing effects of climate change year after year, wildfires are absolutely our new reality and we need to adapt our strategies as a nation to really address this. And so I hope that I can play my part and bring air quality and equity to the forefront. So thank you so much.
Jennifer Gray Thompson:Well, thank you because specifically, you had been on my mind for at least a year when I was really revisioning what After The Fire would look like and re missioning it. And I had mentioned it to you a couple of times softly, little soft intro feeling you out. But one of the things that I love that you bring to the table is not only the issue of highlighting and amplifying the issue of where air quality meets equity and how wildfire affects that, but also your experience with understanding how to navigate an ecosystem of trying to look at a systemic issue that we can actually tackle. We can deal with air quality, we can deal with mega fires, but you really have to be able to, the table with politicians, with policymakers, which is mean staff of politicians and people who have very maybe divergent points of view biases, we have to lead a see them from their own cultural standing, which we have a lot of cultures even in the United States. We need that kind of talent and that kind of willingness to deep politicize as we change policy, and the compassion when you mentioned which just struck me of standing alongside people who were the coal miners, essentially, and that their hands would be coloured by the coal, and the true empathy and compassion that it’s the same in wildfire like the blaming part of it, and the deciding that if you live in the woods, you’re the problem. If you don’t vote the way like, you’re the problem. And suddenly, all these people should just either disappear off the face of the earth or move to an underpass in a suburban or urban area. And we push back on that because we believe that we have to collaborate this issue so big. And can you talk about what that was like from a learning perspective when you were sitting in that space and holding all those points of view, and looking at the systemic issue.
“There isn’t a space for a community to heal, and so there’s no space to also make those connections.” –Chisato Fukuda Calvert, Ph.D.
Chisato Fukuda Calvert: Yeah, sure. I mean, it was very, it kind of, for me, illuminated how important it is to have an outsider perspective, or someone who is not from within the community look into the issue and kind of connect the dots. Because I think, especially for those who are suffering from pollution, and I think the same with people who have lost their homes who are really, I mean, secondary, third trauma from disaster, there really isn’t a space or community to heal. And so there’s really no space to also make those connections. And so I think that’s where, as an anthropologist, it was my responsibility to understand what the gaps were, and also kind of listen to what those gaps are. And the skills that I’ve gained around exactly what you’re saying, and how important compassion and empathy are and trust building is so critical. And so in the work that I did, I had to ensure that I was proficient in Mongolian. I conducted all of my research in the Mongolian language. My surveys were also designed in Mongolian, we had to make sure that everyone understood the urgency of the air pollution problem. And it is really challenging to really try to bring people together and really see that this is something that’s going to affect not just your lifetime, but for generations to come. So yeah, it’s absolutely a necessity.
Jennifer Gray Thompson:And there’s something really lovely that is striking to me, that you reported it out in Mongolian, and did your surveys in Mongolian. I think there’s a lot of transferable skills in wildfire that often when we do talk about wildfire, we’re going to have more of an academic discussion today for sure. But it can be alienating for some people to really, they’re like, I just want to talk about like, how do I keep my house safe? And how do I not like to run for my life and lose everything? And language can also be a barrier to equity. And so to have that to work, it had to be so much harder, let’s be honest, to do it in Mongolian than in English. There’s just no way that that wasn’t far more difficult. So can you talk about that process of you making that sort of bicultural, bilingual decision?
Chisato Fukuda Calvert: Yeah. I can’t take full credit for the actual idea or pursue it. It was a requirement for my program, but it did take years of learning. Basically, all of my summers, I dedicated myself to taking coursework in the Mongolian language. I did a lot of virtual coursework as well with Indiana University, as well as at the University of Wisconsin Madison. I had to also build relationships with teachers and others on the ground in Mongolia to help to facilitate that as well. And so it really is about relationship building.
“Rather than thinking about it as numbers or statistics, it’s important to think that these are people’s lives.” –Chisato Fukuda Calvert, Ph.D.
One thing I also wanted to mention was, it struck me because you mentioned sort of the politics around wildfires, and how people have different agendas, and people talk about in different ways. It’s very similar with air pollution and my experiences in Ulaanbaatar because this is a country that has recently, I mean, recently, in the past few decades transitioned from a Soviet regime to a democratic regime. And during the Soviet Union, a lot of the public health campaigns were very much top down and really regulated, centralized in a way that was very effective and very direct. I think that when a country’s undergoing such a big transition such as a democratic transition and really opening up the markets, and really, coal being a driver of the economy, it’s really difficult. The political agenda of politicians is to keep the coal economy running because it’s incredibly profitable, and it’s one of the biggest producers of the GDP in the country. And I think working with the coal workers day to day was kind of a reminder that people are not doing this because they think it’s polluting. It’s literally to make a couple dollars for the week. And so I think really understanding that disparity and kind of, rather than thinking about it as numbers or statistics, it’s really important to think about, these are people’s lives, and these are people who are trying to make ends meet, and these are families who are continually putting themselves in harm’s way to protect their families. And so I think that what you’re saying about compassion should be the central work in any kind of disaster work.
“Compassion should be the central work in any kind of disaster work.” –Chisato Fukuda Calvert, Ph.D.
Jennifer Gray Thompson:I think it absolutely has to be holding the people affected and the people traumatize the center of all of your work. And it’s really tough. I like that you immediately said, hey, I can’t take credit for doing all the Mongolian things that were a requirement. But I think it takes a lot of courage to have a systemic change that is collaborative and not a zero sum game. And to look at it as a choreographed evolution where people are willing to set aside their sort of desire to dominate a space in service to a greater mission, because you can win. But if you win, then are the people in front of you, are they winning? Are you winning? Which is more important to you?
“Let’s do the hard work together so that we can create lasting, impactful change that lessens suffering” -Jennifer Thompson
I know in disaster, I run into that pretty consistently. Some people are super into collaborating, other people are super not into it. And I am always sort of flummoxed by the ladder because I’m like, but what are we here for? We’re here to actually help the people in front of us. Anyway, I do look forward to having those conversations with you as a board member and sort of helping me walk through, some of them are those difficult conversations or those difficult moments to get to the other side. Because sometimes, I just turn into an eight year old and I’m like, but why being so mean? Yeah, it’s hard. Let’s do the hard work together so that we can actually create lasting, impactful change that really lessens suffering, because that’s the business that we’re in. We are here to lessen and mitigate suffering and just make it a little bit better. And no one is doing this on their own. None of it works that way. So one of the things that I asked you is, if you wouldn’t mind, taking us through some of your slides. Now, if you’re listening to this on the podcast, on the audible, Chisato is really good at actually verbalizing what’s in front of you, but we are going to drop her slide deck into the links as well. And you can also find it on our YouTube page, this may be one of the episodes that you would rather use, take a look at it on YouTube. I was just really struck by the actual data. I don’t hear enough in the conversations about wildfire about the critical piece of air quality. And if you could just quickly tell us a little story that I know that on October 8 in 2017, our world changed here forever.
“Masks are not part of a disaster. It’s step one in a disaster. If you cannot breathe, you cannot get the work done.” -Jennifer Thompson
So there’s before the fire, there’s after the fire, and I had been up all night really helping my sister evacuate or check whatever it was. It was like a bit of a horror show, but it wasn’t until the morning. And when I looked up into the sky at 5:00 AM, I really saw this orange hazy glow, and I really understood, and I was driving in my car to go to the shelter and I thought, I wonder if I should be wearing a mask? And then I was like, am I gonna get one of those? And I called a guy from a local hardware store that I know who, and I was like, Alan, do you have any mask? And then he’s like, I have eight masks left, Jennifer. I was like, I’ll take them all. And I thought I would go and just give them to people, and he’s like, I can’t do that again. I can give you one and I’ll give it to you. And then I understood that masks were huge like, it’s not part of a disaster. It’s part one, it’s step one in a disaster. If you cannot breathe, you cannot get this work done. You will not be able to sit outside for long, you have to wear a mask in your car even because you choke on smoke and you do it for days. But until I had experienced a disaster, it had honestly never occurred to me. We have a 2000 N95 in our office if that should ever come up. Thank you FEMA, by the way.
So I just wanted to put that out there that I had no idea before 2017 that this was that kind of very basic primary issue. Because I’m fortunate to live in a place like Sonoma Valley where we normally have fantastic air quality. So let’s say let’s do that. Anyway, Chisato, we’re going to take a quick break before you share your slides and I’ll let you go ahead and set up your share screen. And we will be back in just a moment with Chisato Fukuda Calvert and she is the interim director of OpenAQ, and a board member of After The Fire, and a friend, so stay with us. Thanks.
Welcome back to the podcast. We are here once again with the OpenAQ Interim Director, Chisato Fukuda Calvert. And apologies, because for some reason, I’m just always stumbling there, my apologies. Anyway, one of the things I’ve asked her to do is actually share some slides. Again, if you’re listening to this on Apple, or Spotify, or any of the other places where it’s hosted, she’s excellent at actually verbalizing what you’re seeing, but we are going to drop the slideshow into the information. I do encourage you, if you’re very interested to go ahead and go over to our YouTube channel and watch at least this part of the episode, we’ll put a marker in it so it’s easier to find. And I’m going to turn it over to Chisato.
Chisato Fukuda Calvert: Great. Thank you, Jennifer. I just wanted to take this opportunity to share a little bit more about air quality health and equity, particularly tailoring it to the wildfire disasters that we’re facing year to year here in the US. So just a big picture. So air quality really affects everyone. We actually breathe 2000 gallons of air every single day. So in terms of amount, if you imagine the size of a large pool, that’s how much air we’re breathing every day. So during a wildfire, what exactly are we breathing? So here’s a diagram of PM 2.5, which is the main component of wildfire smoke. PM 2.5 is a really microscopic mixture of solid and liquid droplets. It’s so small that as you can see, it’s a tiny fraction of the diameter of a human hair follicle. So it’s so small that when you’re breathing it in through your nose or mouth, you can’t actually sneeze or cough it out because at that point, it’s already deep within your human body. So it enters through your nose and mouth, through the lungs, and also can enter your bloodstream, which is really terrifying.
So here’s another image of a microscopic kind of comparison between a red blood cell and pm 2.5. So again, it’s very, very small. And in large amounts, it’s really detrimental to your health. So a few of the health effects from air pollution exposure of TPM 2.5, it can trigger aggravate asthma, it also decreases lung function. If you think about children who are still developing their lungs in their airways, they are most susceptible to decreased lung function. It also increases the risks of pneumonia and bronchitis, and also has cardiovascular effects as well. So heart attacks and those who are suffering from heart disease. And then for pregnant women and infants, really long term PM 2.5 exposure also is really detrimental to fetal development in utero and also causes low birth weight in infants. And not only respiratory and cardiovascular effects, but also affects cognitive decline. And so elderly are also susceptible to dementia. And of course, those who have these underlying heart and lung disease conditions are also susceptible to premature death.
So here are some of the most at risk populations, as I mentioned children who are still developing their lung capacity, pregnant women, older people, people with underlying heart and lung conditions, people who have occupations who are exposed outdoors for a long period of time, especially during peak levels of wildfire smoke and communities of color in the US due to some of the redlining practices that have established policies, essentially putting people of color in neighborhoods that are in close proximity to high polluting industries. And communities of color also, because of this historic practice for decades are disproportionately at risk of higher asthma and cardiovascular diseases, and lack of access to health care resources as well.
And just as a reference, this is a study in 2003. And so it’s a little bit outdated, but UC Irvine conducted a study in Southern California to really give a bigger picture of the health costs of fire smoke, and they found that over 770 hospitalizations, 1400 emergency room visits, 48k outpatient visits and 69 premature deaths are caused by wildfire smoke exposure. So this study really shows that there’s a lot more space and a lot more need for studies like this correlating wildfire smoke, specifically with health health outcomes. And there’s a lot of evidence out there already about collecting some of the medical records that are available in making those studies possible. So I just wanted to share that as a reference for those who are interested in really understanding the quantifiable effects of wildfire smoke on communities.
To hone in a little bit more around the racial disparities of PM 2.5. exposure, people of color really are disproportionately exposed to high concentrations of PM 2.5. And where wildfire comes in is that it essentially exacerbates these pre existing harms because of these underlying conditions. And so the communities of color will always be at higher risk of adverse health outcomes due to the structures that have been in place historically in the US. I’m sure many of you are familiar with the Air Quality Index, you may have seen it in news channels, you may have gone to airnow.gov and done your own research, but here is the EQI for the US. Every government actually has a different EQI based on different thresholds of air pollution exposure. So the AQI was really developed as a public communication tool for communicating daily air quality to the public, and it is an average of different pollutants. So ozone PM 2.5, PM 10, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide. And there are different health concerns that are attached to different thresholds. So you’ll see there’s a range from good down to hazardous. And the higher the number, the greater the health concern.
And during the Dixie Fire, Plumas County actually had an Hy of 834, which is clearly in the maroon 301 or higher threshold. And as a reference, New Delhi’s average is 450. So an AQI of 834 is really detrimental to one’s health, especially if you’re exposed to it for more than one or two days. I also wanted to show this map of the US. Each dot actually represents air quality monitoring data source. So it’s either a low cost sensor or a reference rate monitor. But this is from the OpenAQ website, and these are measurements of PM 2.5. And so based on the day of the year and time of the day, this will be a different gradient from blue to red. Red being highly polluted. So as you can see, the reason why I wanted to show this is because there’s a lot of air quality monitoring happening in the US. But there’s also a lot of gaps in the middle of America and also even parts of the American West. And open data really is integral to try to develop interventions that are designed to mitigate air pollution and designed to safeguard one’s health against wildfire smoke. So I wanted to really showcase the need for more air quality monitoring and the need for more open data so that people can be properly informed about the air that they’re breathing. Another thing that really affects the health angle, particularly around wildfire smoke is transboundary smoke. So wildfire smoke travels, it doesn’t just concentrate in one location.
So if there’s a fire in Northern California, it doesn’t stay within state boundaries. The wind direction and wind flow can really carry it to different parts of the country, and even into other countries and across the ocean as well. And so I think this image developed by NOA really helps to illustrate that there’s quite a lot of different states that are affected by high PM 2.5 levels. And it really is important to think about exposure to wildfire smoke more broadly than within state boundaries. So I wanted to also shift over to thinking about how we can actually safeguard our health when we are exposed to pm 2.5 at high concentrations during wildfires. Here’s an image of the N95 mask. So scientific studies have showcased that wearing an N95 mask properly actually reduces your exposure to PM 2.5 by 95%. So it’s a very high effectiveness, and really encourages those who are outside or having to spend a lot of time outdoors to work, really to protect your health by wearing a N95 mask. And stocking up as well and being able to distribute that to your community members.
“Visualizing the things that we’re putting into our bodies… is really important to create a safe space for our families.” –Chisato Fukuda Calvert, Ph.D.
And of course, a lot of people don’t really think about how air quality outside affects indoor air quality, but it does. It’s about half of the PM 2.5 levels will still linger in your home. Just given that there’s windows, there’s installation issues, and there’s ways to actually get the PM 2.5 trickle into your home, and so it’s really important to think about how to protect indoor air. And the way you can do that is by purchasing an air filter. Air filters are 86% to 98% effective in reducing PM 2.5 exposure. And I’ve listed a few of the models that have been tested in the past and ranked their effectiveness. But this is the air filter, actually, that I had in my home. This was probably for maybe less than a month’s time. And as you can see, it is black. Just another way of visualizing the things that we’re putting into our bodies and how it is how important it is, where we sleep, and where we play, and where we eat, we want to be able to, especially for those who have children and young infants, it’s really important to create a safe space for our families.
And then lastly, I just wanted to highlight some of the projects that we’re working on. And one is forecasting PM, 2.5 and wildfire events. This is through the predicting what we breathe project with the City of Los Angeles and NASA. And what we’ve done is collect ground monitoring air quality data that I mentioned in the map that I showed at OpenAQ, and we’re combining it with satellite data produced by NASA as well as with wildfire data, and creating a predictive algorithm that actually produces a nine day forecast. And this nine day forecast is 95% accurate. And so here’s a graph showing the ground truth with the actual forecasting predictions. This is really valuable because what it allows us to do is allow city governments and federal governments to really provide alert systems or federal level warning systems for those who may be affected by wildfire smoke in the future. And there are ways that, and also be able to communicate the ways that you can safeguard your health by purchasing a HEPA filter, by purchasing masks. So this really opens up the possibility for different types of interventions, as well as for different types of scientific knowledge production around the correlation between wildfire events and PM 2.5 exposure.
So as just conclusion, some of the criteria to think about, or some of the things to think about when thinking about wildfires is it’s not just the fire event itself, but thinking about the PM 2.5 levels, the people who are most affected by the PM 2.5 levels in a community, and then numbers of hospitalizations that are resulting from short term and long term exposure to wildfire smoke, and the percentage of people of color and low income communities that are affected by wildfire smoke, as well as the percentage of states because it’s a transboundary issue affected by wildfire smoke. And there are proven effective interventions, there are ways that you can actually do pre emergency funding to safeguard health. You can distribute N95 masks, and there’s ways to cover medical expenses incurred as a result of long term smoke exposure. And of course, warning systems by using air quality forecasting. So I definitely encourage those who want to learn more. In the yellow box, I added a few links. There are, I guess, websites where you can actually search for more information around health, wildfire and air quality.
Jennifer Gray Thompson:This is a good time to give the actual website for OpenAQ, we would love it if you do that.
Chisato Fukuda Calvert: Sure. Yeah. For those who would like to visit OpenAQ, please go to www.openaq.org. We also hope that you check out our YouTube channel. We have recorded webinars where we focus on different air quality related topics, and we have guest speakers and panelists contributing to those webinars. So definitely encourage you to join our YouTube channel as well. And we do have a monthly, not a monthly issue. It could be monthly, a quarterly newsletter that goes out as well. So we can share updates on projects and upcoming events as well. So it would be great for you all to join in. If you have any questions about air quality, or if you know of any air quality data sources that you want to share on the platform, that would be fantastic, and we’d love to connect with you.
Jennifer Gray Thompson:Thank you. One of the things that occurred to me watching this, because we were on a call with FEMA yesterday where you gave a very similar visit, we gave it the same presentation, which is one of the reasons why I wanted you to repeat it today is because I learned things, and some of them were uncomfortable. The particulate prior, like I knew it was bad, I know I’m inhaling other people’s lives and their furniture, and so you’re inhaling grief, but you’re also inhaling things that are clearly terrible for you, but filters are very expensive. And so it seems like this would be another good opportunity for the healthcare industry and the insurance industry to say, from your HSA funds or whatever it is, if you needed one or two HEPA filters, that’s $200 or $180. I mean, they are not inexpensive. And if they said, we will reimburse you for HEPA filters, and also changing out the filters in your house, and a certain number of masks, it seems like they would save money on the back end, what do you think about that?
Chisato Fukuda Calvert: Yeah, I think that would be an incredibly effective way of ensuring sustainable usage and encouraging people to have them in their homes. I think you’re absolutely right. One of the biggest barriers to purchasing some of these safeguarding protective measures is cost. There are companies out there, and I’m happy to share through email as well, there’s companies like Smart Air that are producing more DIY or more cost effective air purifiers, and they’re proven to be just as effective as any of the big name brands. So there are companies out there who are trying to provide them at a lower cost. But in terms of making sure that there’s a systematic mechanism for those who are most affected in particular to have them in their homes, I think that’s a very important way of ensuring that that happens.
Jennifer Gray Thompson:And I think it’s an opportunity to actually do equity. You and I had this conversation before, people, especially over the past 18 months to talk about equity, and a lot of people are really trying to do it, but how to actually do it, and how to do it in ways that are relevant that actually serve the end user as opposed to the person who’s trying to feel better about equity. But what are the actual actionable items we can do to increase access and equity, and even keeping it, having that be a reimbursable expense for universal health care to under like the Obamacare, it should absolutely extend all the way throughout the program. Because one of the things that we know is we are going to have to live with a certain amount of wildfire smoke, because we have to have prescribed burns, especially in the American West. If we do not tolerate a certain number of bad air days, it’s actually from Lomakatsi, from Marko Bey’s organization, you want to have, his a scientist on staff who said in a meeting, mild fire prevents wildfire. And we do need some wildfires, but we don’t need mega fires, which is what we’re experiencing now. So I would love to see a more tolerance for some days that are, especially during the winter months, or we have not good air quality days, but that we take risk mitigations to ensure that everyone has access, especially where we live in, you live in Sonoma County as I do, and we have a really vital, and vibrant, and critically important agricultural community. I’ve mixed feelings about how this is approached at large, which often you see people who are not agricultural workers stand up and say, well, what they should and shouldn’t do or shouldn’t go to work. I’m not saying that there isn’t some wisdom in their uncertain days and in certain ways, but there has to be safeguards if they must, or want to have to, or we can do better regardless. That’s my point.
Chisato Fukuda Calvert: Yep, exactly. I think that there are certain spaces like schools and classrooms where there’s a need, and it should just be a basic resource that schools have, where there’s going to be, as you say, days where children can’t go outside. And so making sure that those schools have HEPA filters and making sure that what the kids are breathing daily are as healthy air as possible. And there should be mechanisms to ensure that happens.
Jennifer Gray Thompson:And it’s likely that there are silver linings of COVID, we have to find them otherwise, we’re gonna live in despair, which means that a lot of companies and schools have been able to increase their ability to filter air through more quickly. But do we have the data that that’s actually reached into every community, especially communities that have been historically marginalized? And it’s an open question, because I don’t know. But I think that it’s a question worth asking, and then answering at some point. Not you, necessarily not me, but it doesn’t mean that we can’t ask. I think we can ask for that information and say that we trust that somebody is working on that. But if they’re not, hey, there’s an opportunity to do equity in this world.
“The intentional work that community organizations are doing with different demographics, I think there are ways to harness that partnership as well with community-based organizations to get the message out there around this.” –Chisato Fukuda Calvert, Ph.D.
Chisato Fukuda Calvert: Yep, exactly. And even in Sonoma County. I mean, there are so many really effective, and really, I guess, intentional work that community organizations are doing with different demographics, with youth and adolescents. And I think that there’s ways to harness that partnership as well with community based organizations to get the message out there around this.
Jennifer Gray Thompson:I totally agree. So I understand that in your role with OpenAQ, one of the things that you do is that you have a very global vision of air quality. And there’s a couple of things that I would like to make sure that we include in this podcast. One of them is the availability of low cost sensors, like how do people get those? What’s the value of those? Do you have to be an organization? A normal person listening to this podcast and want to put one in your house, can you talk about that?
Chisato Fukuda Calvert: Yeah. Low cost sensors really have been a game changer in the open air quality data landscape, because this means that we don’t have to rely on governments to do the monitoring for us. We can actually take it upon ourselves to start monitoring the air that we’re breathing in our homes, or in our schools, in our neighborhoods. There are all different types of companies. As an organization, we don’t particularly advocate for one over the other, but they’re still quite expensive. And I think that the lowest cost is probably $150. And you can put them up on your wall outside or up on your roof. I think in addition to the low cost sensor, there’s also kind of these handheld air quality monitor as well, which is more mobile,so you can actually take it on a bike ride or in your car. So technology wise. It’s really opened up a space where there’s different types of devices that you can use to inform yourself and your family of the air quality that you’re breathing. And most of these companies make sure that PM 2.5 is included as a pollutant that you can measure.
Jennifer Gray Thompson:That’s one way to that for your average, we live in a wildfire effective community and we are surrounded by them as well across the American West. But if you are thinking, maybe I don’t have a lot of bandwidth to help out in the world because I’ve got this job, got whatever’s going on in your life, which is fine. But just by having a low cost sensor on your home, you are actually helping all the people around you. When they go online and they check OpenAQ and then they’re like, okay, can actually measure it through there. So you are becoming part of the solution in which we will take all progress as perfection, once again, I will quote Supervisor James Gore, because that’s like his mantra in life. And I love that just one idea. It’s funny, there is another company that their sensors are a little bit expensive. And every time we have a wildfire event here or near, as people go online and I’ll be like, well, that’s so random.
Actually, my in-laws’ neighbor has a really nice one. My mother in law, my father in law, like, what is this one doing on Nut Tree Lane? That’s just very random to them. But what it is is that it was important for that family due to certain health issues that they had that air quality sensor right there. But anybody can do that. There’s many things that all of us can do to make, just a little bit easier as you move through the world. That’s all. So I appreciate that conversation.
“In a wildfire, there isn’t enough understanding of the impact of air quality as an issue that affects our health globally, that disproportionately affects people of color, and is an opportunity for us to do better.” -Jennifer Thompson
Part of me wants to nerd out and just talk to you about like, what differences did you see during COVID? And how much we all loved seeing the changes in air quality in the improvement while we were on lockdown, but that’s going to be another podcast. So I just want to save that one for later. I really want to thank you for being along in this collaborative journey towards something better and addressing our climate and human induced issues. I believe that in wildfire, there isn’t enough understanding of the impact of air quality as an issue that affects our health globally, that disproportionately affects people of color, and is in my mind an opportunity for us to do better, and so I want to thank you so much for being colleague, board member and on the podcast today.
Chisato Fukuda Calvert: Thank you so much, Jennifer. It’s always a pleasure speaking with you. I think that your thought leadership and commitment to this space, and really trying to expand the reach of people who it’s affecting is really important, and just really believe that After The Fire, the heart really is in the work. And so just really appreciate what the organization has done up to this point, and really excited about following and guiding around next steps for the organization.
“We’re going to win if we all get to the other side of this together.” -Jennifer Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson:Oh, good, me too, because I am convinced that the more talent that we bring forth to the table and the more of a 360 view of how we get through this is really going to be the secret to our success, and that we’re going to win if we all get to the other side of this together, and then we have a healthier and less vulnerable American West. So once again, this has been the podcast, How to Disaster, where we help you recover, rebuild and reimagine. Thank you.