Breathing in California — Denying the right-to-know

Breathing in California - Denying the right-to-know. Elaine Harger

By Elaine Harger

Reading a Q&A piece in the Seattle Times the other day about the fires in California, I was disturbed by the answer to one question:

    Q: The Bay Area is blanketed in smoke… Is it bad to breathe?

    A: The short answer is yes. When wood, grass and other materials burn, the flames produce gases and throw fine solid particles into the air. Those particles can burrow deep into lungs, which can be particularly dangerous for people with heart or lung diseases, older adults, people with diabetes, pregnant women and children whose lungs are still developing.1

Why no specific mention of the synthetic ingredients present in the smoke of the estimated 6,000 structures now destroyed? Carpets and bedding, toys and TVs, PVC pipes, insulation, roofing materials, household appliances, cars and trucks, asphalt, and all the packaging and contents of products sitting on the shelves of grocery stores, automotive shops, pharmacies. In a word, the smoke produced by the burning content of all those homes, vehicles, infrastructure and businesses is worse that not-healthy, it's toxic!

The burning of plastics and other synthetics that abound in our built environments can produce dioxins which are not merely an irritant to eyes, nose, throat, or a danger primarily to the young, elderly or those with respiratory problems such as asthma.2 According to the World Health Organization, "Dioxins are highly toxic and can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer."3

Adding insult to injury, it wasn't just the newspapers, but even the health advisory from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, which led to the closure of schools and libraries this past week, that made no mention of the truly serious nature of breathing this smoke.4

And, after the smoke has settled, there is the dust from all those destroyed structures which when stirred up can enter the breathing passages and lungs impacting the health of those who come in contact with it.5

Libraries can step in and inform all those in the vicinity of California's fires of exactly why they should be taking the utmost cautions not to breathe this smoke. These are not forest fires, and treating questions about breathing this kind of smoke should not gloss over the dangers. In effect, the provision of only partial information about the nature of smoke from California fires denies people who deserve to know their right to know.


1. Turkewitz, Julie (2017). Drought-parched landscapes fueling California's wildfires. Seattle Times. 12 October 2017. A3 (originally from the New York Times, link).

2. Women in Europe for a Common Future. Dangerous Health Effects of Home Burning of Plastics and Waste - Fact Sheet. Web, link.

3. World Health Organization. Dioxins and Their Effect on Human Health. Web. Updated October 2016, link. Accessed 15 October 2017.

4. Bay Area Air Quality Management District. Health Advisory - Spare the Air Alert. Web. 13 October 2017, link. Accessed 14 October 2017.

5. Center for Disease Control. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Public Health Statement for Synthetic Vitreous Fibers. Web. September 2004, link. Accessed 14 October 2017.

Elaine Harger is a middle school librarian, union member, school garden enthusiast, racial equity and social justice activist, longstanding PLGer, 30-year ALA member, and author of Whose Side Are You On? Seven Social Responsibility Debates in American Librarianship, 1990-2015 (McFarland, 2016). She served on ALA's governing Council, Committee on Organization, and Committee on Education in the years between 1998 and 2009; the ALA/AFL-CIO Joint Committee on Library Services to Labor Groups from 1990-93; and ALA's Social Responsibilities Round Table in various capacities beginning in 1991 until 2009. Currently, she is an active member of her school's Racial Equity Team and an advocate for the elimination of the academic tracking system in Seattle Public Schools, which has long institutionalized racial segregation within the schools.

Image: Marcus Yam, Los Angeles Times, aerial view of Coffey Park neighborhood in Santa Rosa after fire. [link].