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    News in Depth/Perspective

    Fire Fallout, Mass Health Impacts, Antiquated, Inaccurate, Incomplete Public Info: What AQMD Didn't Tell LB & Southeast L.A. & Orange County Areas Until Too Late

  • AQMD data showed LB & parts of S.E. LA and North/Central OC pummeled by unhealthy levels of PM10 particulates; some LB readings eclipsed existing Fed'l stds.

  • AQMD sent antiquated advisories & forecasts lacking current data; failed to include massive LB & southeast LA County fallout for days; agency's automated phone system dispensed inaccurate air quality info for days

  • LB Health Dept. issued written advisory but no publicly accessible updated LB details

  • Ash fall Oct. 26
    Photo source: NASA


    (Nov. 3, 2003) -- While fires raged in the San Bernardino mountains, Santa Ana winds sent a plume of particulates linked to respiratory ailments, heart disease and cancer over large parts of L.A. and Orange County, including Long Beach, CA's fifth largest city and L.A. County's second largest (481,000 residents in the latest CA Dept. of Finance figure).

    During crucial days when the fire fallout approached or exceeded unhealthy levels, and hundreds of thousands of people exposed to the pollutants might have taken steps to protect themselves and their families, the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) used antiquated, bureaucratic media advisories and forecasts -- the equivalent of weather forecasts without current temperatures -- instead of providing accurate real time information.

    During the worst of the fallout, AQMD's advisories and forecasts didn't mention PM10 levels in LB and other southeast L.A. County areas...only adding these areas days late.

    This was despite the fact that the agency had access to PM10 particulate data -- including LB data -- indicating fallout approached or exceeded levels considered unhealthy. Some of the information was publicly available, although displayed in 24-hour average form, on AQMD's own web site (which posted and reported in real time.)

    AQMD's automated public information telephone system didn't provide accurate air quality information, understating fire fallout impacts for days. AQMD eventually issued an advisory warning the public to ignore the telephone data and use figures from the advisory.

    AQMD has a LB monitor (LB Blvd. near 36th St.) that measures PM10 particulates (not all AQMD monitors do). It publicly displays 24-hour average readings on SCAQMD's web site.

    Shortly after dawn on Oct. 26, (which has maintained a live link to AQMD's LB monitor on our front page for over a year) put the monitor's data output on our front page with a red headline. By 11 a.m., the monitor's 24-hour average PM10 levels, which began rising overnight, began rising dramatically...a serious indicator because real time readings were even higher. has since learned that LB's PM10 readings in the early afternoon of Oct. 26 reached a peak of roughly double the level considered unhealthy under conventional standards if experienced for 24 hours.

    On Oct. 29, AQMD officials held a press event at a San Fernando Valley elementary school to discuss health impacts from the particulates. Earlier that day, while LB particulate levels were declining but still at elevated levels, the entire LB Wilson High School student body -- 4,300 students -- was taken outside to attend an event (complete with cheerleaders and drum corps) attended by the Mayor and other public officials to focus on receipt of a school award.

    The City of Long Beach, which maintains an independent Health Department separate from L.A. County, issued a written health advisory late in the day on Oct. 26, dated Oct. 27. The agency offered no other publicly available updated information while LB was being deluged by harmful particulates.

    All of this occurred when -- unlike a homeland security mass casualty event -- AQMD and the LB Health Dept. had their major resources (electricity, phones, computers) intact...raising questions about how well these agencies would perform in circumstances when their resources wouldn't be available.

    This latter point is our primary reason for detailing what happened...not to point fingers but to prompt changes in the ways these agencies communicate information to the public that could prevent this -- or worse -- from happening again.

    The Gathering Storm

    On October 24, 2003, AQMD issued a smoke advisory and air quality forecast which recited that "concentrations of fine particulates are expected to reach the unhealthful level in smoke impacted areas" and urged individuals to "exercise caution and avoid unnecessary outside activities in the smoke impacted areas."

    It indicated nine inland empire areas would have an unhealthy PM10/2.5 Air Quality Index (AQI) over 150 (higher AQIs mean more pollutants) and the east and south San Gabriel Valley and Pomona/Walnut valleys would have AQIs of 125 (unhealthy for sensitive persons).

    For Oct. 25, it forecast unhealthy AQIs for eight inland empire areas and AQIs of 123 for the east San Gabriel Valley and Pomona Walnut valley.

    On October 24 at 8:40 p.m., posted a live Doppler Radar image (automatically updated) from the National Weather Service prominently on our front page. It showed a plume of (larger dust size) particulates extending from the San Bernardino mountains to Long Beach and encompassing much of southeast L.A. County and northern and central Orange County. We maintained this image on our front page through Saturday Oct. 25...and beyond.


    On October 26, LB awoke to find heavy amounts of ash and soot had rained down overnight. Cars and sidewalks showed visible deposits.

    Ash fall Oct. 26

    Ash fall Oct. 26

    "It looks like Vesuvius blew her top last night." one El Dorado Park area resident emailed us, likening the scene to Pompeii. The sky was a sickly yellow. The sun cast an eerie, obscured light. quickly posted a breaking news story, with pictures, and included live data from AQMD's LB monitor data. We also simultaneously posted AQMD's LB monitor data live on our front page. also included Doppler Radar images from the National Weather Service. At 6:03 a.m., it showed "red" and "orange" (heavy) particulate fallout...the type of readings seen much closer to the fire areas:

    Ash fall Oct. 26

    Shortly before noon, the AQMD monitor's average PM10 level -- which had been rising all morning, turned even more sharply upward. Since the monitor only displays a 24-hour smoothed average levels (correlating to the federal 24-hour exposure standard), this was an ominous sign: a sudden upturn meant actual PM10 levels at that moment were almost certainly significantly higher.

    LB AQI 10/26 has since learned from AQMD that LB's peak PM10 levels on early Sunday afternoon Oct. 26 were indeed much higher than the average displayed. AQMD says that on the early afternoon of Sunday Oct. 26, LB's peak hourly PM10 reading was 484 micrograms/cubic meter. There is no federal standard for this acute exposure. The federal government considers 150 micrograms/cubic meter of PM10 unhealthy over 24 hours; CA considers 50 micrograms/cubic meter of PM unhealthy if experienced over 24 hours.

    [AQI and micrograms/cubic meter are different scales. AQI is a composite figure and the most common public air quality standard. 100 AQI equates to approximately 155 micrograms/meter PM10. 150 AQI equates to 254 micrograms/cubic meter PM10. The federal government considers 150 AQI unhealthy.]

    On the same day as LB's PM10 levels were soaring (Oct. 26), AQMD issued a smoke advisory and air quality forecast that didn't mention LB or any southeast L.A. County areas. It said north, central, Saddleback & Capistrano Valley OC areas would have PM10/2.5 AQIs of 110. It included a forecast for Oct. 27 that also didn't mention LB or any southeast L.A. County areas. It forecast that north, central, and Saddleback valley OC areas would again by unhealthy for sensitive persons.

    The 24-hour average PM10 levels from AQMD's monitor displayed on AQMD's web site remained unhealthy for October 26 and much of October 27, starting to decline at midmorning on Oct. 27 while remaining above 100. LB's usual 24-hour average PM10 level is roughly 30-40.

    If AQMD's LB monitor had displayed non-averaged PM10 (or PM2.5) data in real time, the public would have had an earlier warning of the unhealthy air...and more up to date data on pollution levels as they occurred, not lagging thereafter.

    In the afternoon/early evening of October 26, the LB Department of Health and Human Services issued a Public Health Alert for October 27 which was posted on its web page. It stated:


    The City Health Officer for the City of Long Beach Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) is advising all individuals with breathing problems to take extra precautions during the current poor air quality from southern California fires. The individuals most at risk for respiratory problems include people with asthma and other lung conditions and other respiratory allergies. Darryl Sexton, M.D., City Health Officer, advises these "sensitive groups" to stay indoors as much as possible and to keep windows closed to minimize contact with the smoky ash ridden air. Turning on the Air conditioner also assists in filtering outside air. Smoky conditions can be hazardous for young children, the elderly, individuals with heart conditions or chronic lung disease such as asthma and bronchitis. Individuals with these diseases should make sure they have at least a five day supply of any prescribed medication on hand. Individuals with asthma should consult their physician about an asthma management plan and stick to it during unusually smoky conditions. Contact your doctor or emergency service if you have symptoms such as chest pain, chest tightness, shortness of breath or severe fatigue.

    All individuals should discontinue prolonged vigorous outdoor exercise lasting more than one hour. While driving, drivers should keep their windows rolled up and air conditioners on to assist in filtering the air. Use a recirculating function on your air conditioner if available instead of drawing smoky air from the outside.

    For further information regarding precautions recommended by the DHHS, contact Dr. Felix Aguilar, Public Health Physician, at (562) 570-4087. Further information regarding air quality conditions may be obtained at South Coast Air Quality Management District’s web page, at: [hyperlink cites to Oct. 24 SCAQMD advisory].

    The work week begins

    On Monday Oct. 27, tens of thousands of area residents went to work, many in buildings with air conditioning systems they could not control. Others worked outside.

    The LB area continued to experience abnormally high PM10 readings on Oct. 27, reaching a peak level that day of 222 micrograms/cubic meter.

    LB's highest 24-hr average PM10 level (which included higher levels from the day before) was recorded on Oct. 27, 6-8 a.m.: 160 AQI (274 micrograms/cubic meter).

    LB AQI 10/27

    On Tuesday Oct. 28, AQMD issued a smoke advisory and air quality forecast indicating the LB area would experience an AQI of 105 that day and forecast an AQI of 130 for Oct. 29 (unhealthy for sensitive persons; above 150 is unhealthy for all). On Oct. 27 and 28, LBUSD schools did not conduct outdoor activities.

    On Oct 29, AQMD issued a smoke advisory and air quality forecast indicating the LB area would have an AQI of 130 (unhealthy for sensitive persons). It also posted a hyperlink on its web site with the following advisory:

    The South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) advises all residents -- especially children, the elderly and those with heart and lung disease -- to curtail outdoor activities if they smell smoke or see falling ash in their area.

    "Wind patterns and the enormous extent of wildfires have dispersed smoke and ash through much of the Southland," said Joe Cassmassi, senior meteorologist for the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

    "Residents, school and athletic officials should err on the side of caution and limit outdoor activities if air quality is forecast to be unhealthful, or if smoke moves into their areas."

    Smoke contains a number of air pollutants, from fine particulates to carbon monoxide to cancer-causing toxic air contaminants such as benzo-a-pyrene. Limiting outdoor activities and staying indoors can help reduce one’s exposure to these pollutants.

    That morning (Oct. 29), with PM10 levels still elevated, the entire Wilson High School student body (4,300 students) was brought outside to attend a half hour event featuring LB Mayor Beverly O'Neill, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell, LBUSD Superintendent Chris Steinhauser and L.A. philanthropist Eli Broad, applauding LBUSD's receipt of the Broad Foundation's award as best urban school district.

    Less than six hours later, AQMD held a press event at a Northridge elementary school and issued a written release stating:


    At a Northridge elementary school today, Southland air quality officials offered tips for children, schools and the elderly to avoid the adverse health effects of breathing smoke from some of the worst wildfires in the state’s history.

    "Air quality in some areas has been severely impacted from Southern California’s firestorms," said William A. Burke, Ed.D., Governing Board Chairman of the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

    "To address this unprecedented situation, we have developed specific tips for children, seniors and the general public to help them avoid health impacts from the smoke."

    Those at greatest risk from smoke exposure are people with heart and lung diseases, including chronic pulmonary disease, emphysema, bronchitis and asthma. Seniors are more likely to have such conditions.

    Children are more sensitive to smoke because their respiratory systems are still developing. Children also breathe more air per pound of bodyweight than adults and they are more active outdoors, increasing their exposure to outdoor pollutants.

    Short-term effects of smoke exposure include a scratchy throat, headache, runny nose and itchy eyes. Epidemiological studies from around the world have shown that elevated levels of particulates, such as are occurring now around the Southland, are associated with increased death rates.

    At Beckford Elementary School in Northridge today, Burke released AQMD tip sheets that will be widely distributed to schools and the general public in the days to come. AQMD staff also will answer questions from the public during normal business hours as well as this weekend on its 1-800-CUT-SMOG line. Among the tips:

    Stay indoors. Limit your exposure to unhealthful air quality conditions as much as possible. Keep your windows and doors closed. Use your air conditioning system, and place it on recirculation mode if available to avoid bringing outdoor air into the home. Remember to change your filters regularly. Indoor HEPA air filters can reduce the levels of particles in your home.

    Play indoors. Choose indoor options for children that live and play in areas with unhealthful pollution levels. Schools and day care centers should limit or cancel outdoor activities and events that involve prolonged exposure and strenuous exercise or sports participation.

    Reduce your activity. Reducing your physical activity lowers the amount of polluted air you breathe.

    Consult your physician. If you suffer from a heart or lung ailment, monitor your physical condition closely and talk with your doctor. He or she can advise you on treatment and whether and when you should leave the area. Call your doctor immediately if your condition worsens.

    Have a plan. People with chronic diseases should have an adequate supply of medications (5 days or more). Asthmatics should have a written asthma management plan available.

    Stay alert. Look and listen for air quality alerts provided by the AQMD in newspapers, radio and television. They are also available at and 1-800-CUT-SMOG. If the air quality in your area worsens, take necessary precautions to protect your and your family’s health...

    Shortly after 10 p.m., AQMD Board chair William Burke appeared on Fox11's prime time news to emphasize that risks from the particulates could persist in the area for several weeks.

    The agency's October 29 advisory also disclosed:

    Please rely solely on the air quality forecast and the smoke advisory updates for the value of the Air Quality Index in your area and disregard the 1-800-CUTSMOG telephone number or the AQMD website display of the current air quality. The automated systems are not designed to address smoke impacts and are not reflecting the current particulate levels measured in the atmosphere.

    AQMD also forecast that on Oct. 30, LB's AQI for PM10/2.5 would drop below 100, no longer unhealthy for sensitive persons. (LB's average PM10 level is normally between 30-40). By Oct. 30, the Santa Ana winds began to shift. An onshore flow (winds from west to east) returned. Fire fallout began wafting eastward over the deserts instead of westward over the L.A.-O.C. air basin.

    By this time, over 480,000 LB residents, plus tens of thousands of others in southeastern L.A. County and parts of Orange County, had been exposed to levels of airborne pollutants that they might have mitigated or avoided...if they'd had access to crucial information and self-protective measures in time.

    What Other Authorities Recommended

    The CA Air Resources Board has posted on its web site a document titled, "Wildfire Smoke, A Guide for Public Health Officials," jointly prepared by experts from several state and federal agencies. It states in pertinent part:

    ...Table 3 provides guidance to public health officials on measures that can be taken to protect public health. These levels are intended for use in extraordinary circumstances to help public health authorities, the media, and the general public make decisions regarding appropriate strategies to mitigate exposure to smoke. It should be recognized that there are no directly relevant epidemiological or controlled human exposure studies that offer guidance in the selection of these levels, in part because studies of short-term effects of particles generally have not been conducted and in part because the toxicity of smoke is likely related to gases in smoke as well as particles.

    Table 3. Recommended Actions for Public Health Officials

    CategoryPM2.5 or PM10 Levels (mg/m3, 1- to 3-hr avg.)Visibility - Arid Conditions (miles)Recommended Actions
    Good0 - 40> 10If smoke event forecast, implement communication plan
    Moderate41 - 806 - 9Issue public service announcements (PSAs) advising public about health effects/symptoms and ways to reduce exposure - Distribute information about exposure avoidance
    Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups81 - 1753 - 5If smoke event projected to be prolonged, evaluate and notify possible sites for clean air shelters - If smoke event projected to be prolonged, prepare evacuation plans
    Unhealthy176 - 3001.5 - 2.5Consider "Smoke Day" for schools (i.e., no school that day), possibly based on school environment and travel considerations - Consider canceling public events, based on public health and travel considerations
    Very Unhealthy301 - 5001 - 1.25Consider closing some or all schools (However, newer schools with a central air cleaning filter may be more protective than older, leakier homes...) - Cancel outdoor events (e.g., concerts and competitive sports)
    Hazardous> 500< 0.75Close Schools - Cancel outdoor events (e.g., concerts and competitive sports) - Consider closing workplaces not essential to public health - If PM level projected to continue to remain high for a prolonged time, consider evacuation of sensitive populations

    What We Recommend

    We realize that much of what occurred -- including the rapid spread of the fires -- was not anticipated. However, this is not a defense for maintaining an antiquated, bureaucratic, inefficient, incomplete and too often inaccurate communication system.

    Real time PM10 data were not available to the public, the media, or other area officials. They should have been. Providing this information on AQMD's web site should be job one.

    Bureaucratic advisories and forecasts are no substitute for real time data. The weather service doesn't just send forecasts and advisories; it provides current temperatures and conditions.

    The hazards of the current, antiquated system were most apparent for LB. AQMD's bureaucratic advisories and forecasts failed even to mention the LB area -- where the public was pummeled by particulates on October 26 which began on Oct. 25 -- until October 28...days after they'd been exposed.

    Enough. AQMD internally has real hourly PM10 data, not just 24-hour averages. The public deserves to see this data displayed alongside 24-hour averages from the LB monitor. If the real time data had been displayed during this event, the public, media -- including LB government officials -- could have learned the facts sooner and helped the public protect itself sooner. Likewise, air quality improvements would also be evident more rapidly.

    During live fire coverage, a national cable network switched to San Diego to carry a news conference with Air Pollution Control District Director Dick Smith. When air quality became very unhealthful for people in real time, Director Smith ensured people got the facts. He didn't rely on bureaucratic advisories and forecasts for an event occurring in real time. Mr. Smith publicly announced that SD area AQIs had risen above 251 and recommended that the public take certain self-protective measures. Excellent, a real public service. That's what we believe AQMD officials should have done.

    AQMD had data showing unhealthy levels of particulates were affecting hundreds of thousands of people, including nearly half a million in LB alone. The agency knew from its LB monitor that LB's AQI PM10 levels had soared. We believe AQMD officials should have held a press event by midday Sunday Oct. 26 at the latest to convey health warnings and protective measures to the public.

    And the agency should certainly have done this before the start of the Oct. 27 work week, not after more than half the work week had elapsed and conditions began to improve.

    We also expected a more high visibility response from LB's Health Dept. By midmorning on Oct. 26, LB residents knew something bad had happened; what LB's Health Dept. should have told them was exactly how bad it was and what to do about it. The truth is, the entire city encountered a real time risk for public health.

    24-hour average LB PM10 data were available on SCAQMD's web site (which had prominently posted on our front page). Obviously, if average PM10 levels rise steeply toward 150 from their normal 35-40 range, LB was almost certainly experiencing real time PM10 levels much higher than 200.

    Under those circumstances, we think LB residents would have appreciated hearing from their city's Health Dept. real time information and more detailed protective measures beyond what its health advisory provided.

    Most troubling of all is that during this event, AQMD and the LB Health Dept. had their major operational resources intact. Telephones worked. Electricity was on. The market's radio and TV stations were on the air. If these agencies performed as they did when they had all their resources, why should the public believe they will do better in a homeland security or mass casualty event when such resources likely won't be available?

    We believe these two agencies should take immediate steps to reform and update their public information and communication practices. We are aware AQMD media staff worked hard over the weekend to get the story out even when AQMD's main offices were closed. From what we can tell, some of the agency's rigid automated systems resisted efforts to get accurate information out.

    This isn't a matter of working harder; it's a matter of working smarter. Telephone info systems may be automated, but web sites are not. The internet is the most flexible and powerful communication tool any public agency has. It can be updated nearly instantaneously from virtually anywhere at any hour, from a laptop miles away if necessary. That capability would seem to be crucial in a potential homeland security event...when it may be impossible to fax a release from AQMD HQ to a media outlet. The internet communicates simultaneously to media outlets and to the public.

    SCAQMD's web site assures the public:

    "AQMD continuously monitors air quality at more than 30 locations throughout the four-county area. This also allows us to notify schools, the press and the public whenever air quality is unhealthful."

    We believe everyone breathing in the L.A. air basin deserves that information -- accurately, timely and in all the detail the internet and technology can provide -- when it happens, not after the fact. We urge AQMD's leadership to take measures to ensure this. We'll glady report it when they do.

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