Doctor discourages long walks, outdoor dining while smoke persists

After 25 days of poor air quality in the Bay Area, people who work outdoors are weary.

"A little hard to breathe with the ash and everything but we have to work, we have to work," said a car wash employee in Novato Friday evening.

Like letter carriers, delivery drivers, landscapers and construction crews, outdoor jobs offer little respite from the choking smoke.

"It's been like a volcano erupted or something, all this ash, " said Kenn Eyolson, at Treemasters Marin, as tree service crews returned to the yard at the end of the day.

They have been keeping up with their jobs, although workers can opt out if conditions become too much. 

"We've been out there in the smoke just knocking it dead," said Eyolson, "but if someone doesn't want to work, they don't have to stay out in this stuff, we'll let a guy go home with pay."

Good policy, according to medical experts who are deluged with patients suffering smoke-related maladies.

"You can get symptoms pretty quickly, irritated eyes, sore throat, cough, wheezing," said Dr. Vinayak Jha,a pulmonologist with Sutter Health and California Pacific Medical Center.


Jha notes, those symptoms are signs of inflammation in the body.

That can put someone at higher risk of bronchitis or pnemonia.

The smoke contains contaminants smaller than a red blood cell, and inhaled deep in the lungs, cannot be exhaled.

Yet even when people can see and smell thick smoke, some remain outdoors.

"That coat of ash on your car, you're inhaling that into your lungs," said Jha.

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"And if you're out when you don't have to be, you're inhaling those tiny, tiny particles deep inside, and I would avoid that whenever possible."

Jha says particles penetrate cloth masks and surgical masks, and only the hard-to-find N-95 mask blocks them.

"You may not be able to find N-95, so the second best is just avoidance," he said.

That's not easy for the grocery store worker fetching shopping carts outdoors.

Or the food server, whose only opporunity to work during the pandemic, is outdoor dining.

"My hunger is overcoming the danger I guess," said Eric Salvisberg while having dinner with his daughter at LaVier Latin Fusion in San Rafael.

Jenufer Salvisberg acknowledged their meal was exposing the pair to unhealthy smoke.

"Well, yes but so is the pollution that's in the air all the time," said Jenufer, "so it's bothering me, but I don't think it should inhibit my life in any way."

Another diner bounced her baby son on her knee.

"It's worth it to us to visit and be outside, even though it could be high risk, right buddy?" cooed Bethany Mariano, who had traveled from Redding to the Bay Area is a futile attempt to escape smoke.

Jha discourages outdoor dining, along with long walks, bike rides, or any exertion that causes more inhalation, during these times of astronomically bad air quality readings. 

"In terms of how many hours one can be out in order to be safe in the red or purple zone, that information is not known so we say minimize it," said Jha. 

Research shows wildfire smoke clearly worsens existing respiratory conditions.

But the findings are mixed on whether it's linked to heart attack or a shorter lifespan.

So caution is in order.

"We've been trying to hang tough to get through this," said Eyolson, "and praying that the wind will come and blow it all away, it's just weird."