“Both the coronavirus crisis and the climate crisis reveal that our world is inextricably interconnected, and it’s as strong or as fragile as those connections. We have to strengthen those connections. It is our only choice. The sun is going to rise again.” -Mary Annaïse Heglar, climate justice writer, March 2020
The World Health Organization’s Social Determinants of Health came to a consensus principle that “health is neither created nor maintained within the health sector.”
It is beyond the hospitals; it is now in our national and state forests and our own behavioral practices in our homes.
A good friend of mine texted on Sept. 10: “Stay indoors, Prosy. The smoke is bad for your asthma.” I could feel my labored breathing and I had no metrics to measure how bad the air was.
But, the California Air Resources Board did.
California Air Resources Board reported 613 micrograms per cubic meter outdoor pollution in Yosemite Village around Mariposa County, which was more than 18 times the federal health standard of 35 and beyond the range of Air Quality Index, on Sept. 17, 2020.
The smoke lasted about 13 days, impacting about 60% of California’s population, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Fires erupted in the South as well. The Angeles National Forest’s campgrounds were shut down, as all campgrounds in the state of California, as wildfires threatened neighborhoods.
11,000 lightning strikes have ignited very dry trees and have damaged 3.2 million acres so far, with 748,000 acres burned in Yosemite National Park.
In San Francisco, 30,000 acres have burned.
For a decade, 2001-2010 – 7.03 million acres burned, while in 2011-2020, 10.8 million acres have burned, according to a study done by LA Times’ on Sept. 15, 2020.
There was so much ash that folks were vacuuming them off their cars.
Mojave Desert National Park’s heart of Joshua Tree forests were not spared. Millions of trees burned, some cared for thousands of years.
Effects of wildfire smokes and coronavirus pandemic
I did not realize how bad it was until I monitored the indoor air purifier readings, from 70 to 50 micrograms per cubic meter after 12 hours. It exceeded the federal health standard of 35. After two weeks, 15 micrograms per cubic meter was the reading, which was under the federal health standard. Today, it is at three micrograms per cubic meter. It feels easier to breathe inside the house.
The LA Times reported people suffered sore throats, headaches, chest pains, and lungs burned from wildfires smoke: “Of all the ingredients in wildfire smoke, the most concerning to scientists are microscopic particles known as PM2.5 because they are less than 2.5 microns in diameter. They can be inhaled deep into the lungs and pass into [the] bloodstream.”
To non-sensitive folks, these changes may not matter and might do gardening outdoors.
But at 613 micrograms per cubic meter and a federal health standard at 35, this was very polluted air, exceeding it by 17 times.
I attempted walking outdoors, but after 10 minutes, I could feel an imminent asthma attack, even with maintenance inhalers. I went home.
“From human-controlled exposure studies, which generally do not include especially sensitive subjects, there is evidence for a threshold for lung damage and inflammation at about 60 to 80 ppb (120-160 mg/m3) for short-term exposure (6.6 hours) with intermittent moderate exercise,” according to Greenfacts.org.
During these polluted days, those affected are young children, pregnant women, outdoor workers, elderly and especially people with asthma, lung disease and heart disease, the LA Times continued.
With such high levels of wildfire smoke along the West Coast, patients seeking medical care have likely increased for asthma attacks, heart attacks, strokes and other health problems aggravated by air pollution. “Stanford University researchers have estimated 1,000 to 3,000 excess deaths and an additional 5,000 emergency room visits in California last month,” according to the LA Times report.
As if we are not seeing enough deaths reported already. In the United States, coronavirus deaths have affected the Black, Latino, and Asian American communities disparately.
Johns Hopkins University’s coronavirus dashboard reports, “While Black Americans represent only about 13% of the population in the states reporting racial/ethnic information, they account for about 34% of total COVID-19 deaths in those states. Asian Americans and Latinx Americans also show elevated impacts in some regions.”
Amongst Asian Americans, disparities in deaths have been reported in that Coronavirus deaths have claimed 35% more lives or 14,000 more Asian Americans would have lived had they not postponed maintenance care for their chronic health conditions like: diabetes, asthma, high blood pressure, and even obesity.
Business Insider on Sept. 30, 2020 reported: “Nurses of Filipino descent comprise just 4% of the U.S. workforce, but nearly a third of registered nurse deaths due to COVID-19, according to a new report from the National Nurses United union.”
What will keep our families from falling down the cliff?
“Everyone should have the opportunity to achieve good health, and that’s not often the case,” Dr. Camara Phyllis Jones, Senior Fellow at the Cardiovascular Research Institute at Morehouse School of Medicine and Past President of the American Public Health Association asserted.
Some are fortunate to have an ambulance to catch those who fall off the cliff. A delay in that ambulance getting to you can mean death and sooner, chances of survival.
How about a trampoline as a safety net? That can also save lives yet some of these safety nets have holes, allowing others to fall off the cliff.
That means others are uninsured and postpone being seen by doctors to address their poor health conditions.
So why not fence off so folks do not fall down the cliff, she asked?
She wants us to look at the inequitable structures that cause disparities, such as those uninsured, or those who live in places where the ambulance is not readily available, or live with greater exposure to toxins and air pollutants such that folks are pushed closer to the cliff’s edge.
Pushed to the cliff’s edge
It happened to me when I was in Baybay, Leyte – where an ambulance took 45 minutes to reach my condotel, for it had a failed battery.
I could not breathe and my inhalers for asthma from the U.S. did not work. I was exposed to dust, dirt, travel, air pollution, including clean hotels with dead casings of cockroaches, rodent feces on window sills at an Ateneo dorm, termites in a doctor’s room, and tree pollen from lush trees.
Luckily for me, Dr. Elwin Jay Yu, a young doctor from Visayas State University was quite conscientious, as its president Joe Bacusmo.
Dr. Yu gave me a nebulizing treatment, an IV and connected me to an oxygen tank.
But, when I used the toilet, it also had leaking plumbing. Either I would die from cholera or actual system failure from not breathing.
Dr. Yu moved me, accompanied by my husband, to his quarters, where doctors would sleep through their shifts. During the night, I kept coughing, only to realize, termite droppings were coming from the ceiling.
My husband, Enrique, had to walk a mile to buy my medications from the only pharmacy in Baybay.
It took three days to stabilize me. From the excellent care of Dr. Yu, I obtained the right medication that worked for my asthma.
To this day, 14 years later, the prescription he gave me still works.
But years of juicing vegetables and fruits fortified my immune system, as celery juicing 30 minutes before breakfast. I am now on 402 days.
According to Dr. Mehmet Oz, a cardiac surgeon and a talk show host, health and wellness can be sustained, by controlling inflammation. Even allergies are caused by inflammation, he said.
Asthma is inflammation of the airways.
What are those signs of inflammation that we need to watch out for and perhaps, prevent us from pushing ourselves down the cliff?
When lungs are inflamed – it results in labored breathing – some due to inhaling bad air pollutants, like the wildfire smokes, or in my Baybay experience, from travel pollutants, insect residues, tree pollen and of late, mold in aircon vents that trigger allergic reactions.
The wrong choice of foods can also cause inflammation. Eating fried foods, potato chips, and tortillas on tacos can be sources of stomach inflammation.
Other foods that are widely known to nutritionists to cause inflammation are: soy sauce, corn, rice, bagels, eggplant, tofu, tomatoes, peppers, store-bought white bread due to chemical additives, sugary drinks, processed meats like bacon, sausage, grain-fed beef, seed oils, pasta, refined flour, additives, artificial sweeteners, canola oil, salt, alcohol, and whole-fat dairy products.
Soft drinks that cause stomach inflammation are also packaged in plastic and the world’s worst plastic pollutants come from the soft drinks manufacturers, as bottled water too.
Some of these foods are consumed by bodybuilders and those losing weight opting paleo and keto methods: grain-fed beef, bacon, sausage, cheese.
For those watching their sugar intake, like diabetics, opting for artificial sweeteners to bring down one’s sugar level may end up increasing one’s inflammation levels.
I was drinking coffee one day and decided to put stevia in it. After it, my chest felt like shutting down. I realized after that the sugar substitute had caused internal inflammation in my body.
I now drink coffee, black, and only once a day. On days with a high pollution index, I drink green tea and lots of water with cut-up lemon or cucumber.
Inflammation also occurs in young children, fed with pasta and cheese, as well as grilled cheese and ham sandwiches, which are easy to prepare and perceived to have these food groups of dairy, protein, and carbohydrates.
But, the refined flour used in the pasta, as well as the processed ham with nitrates, cause inflammatory reactions in these young bodies.
I heard from a friend that her young boy has eczema and constipation because he eats meats with no vegetables and fruits.
Add to that indoor flowers and plants. When our eyes are burning up, feeling itchy – that is the first signal that our bodies are affected by something allergenic.
For me, that was a beautiful arrangement of flowers, which caused a runny nose and dry itchy eyes. I moved the vase where I did not have to inhale what was causing my reactions.
Ramen, which is highly processed, can be cooked in less than two minutes. Pouring only hot water, it is a convenient hot lunch for many families. But after eating, ramen causes bloating and stomach inflammation.
It is why you notice Koreans eat ramen with kimchi, fermented pickled cabbage, a source of probiotics, or precursor microorganisms like eating yogurt, with “good bacteria,” e.g. lactobacilli that aids digestion.
So where are our families in this inflammatory index of eating? Have we considered why our young school children have allergies, constipation, and eczema?
Do we feed them nutritious fruits and vegetables, in addition to meats?
Or do we opt for fried chicken, spaghetti with hotdogs – high in salt, sugar, and fat if from a popular fast food place, cheeseburgers and chicken nuggets? Or perhaps tacos in the truck?
Or do we make an effort to cook nilaga, tinola, sinigang, mechado, bittermelon with eggs, drunken mussels cooked in garlic and wine with salad for our families?
Are we pushing our families off the cliffs or are we keeping them miles away from falling down the cliffs by our conscious lifestyle choices of eating nutritious meals, summiting mountains, walking the trails, gardening outdoors, or playing sports outdoors and even dance and music?
Until there is a coronavirus vaccine, let’s fortify our immune systems by choosing cleaner indoor air, outdoor activities when the air is not polluted and below the federal health standard of 35 micrograms per cubic meter, choosing nutrition over convenient fast foods and of course, sleep and daily prayers that we all survive 2020 from coronavirus and wildfire smokes.
In addition to prayers, we need California Governor Gavin Newsom to enact green policies, with the legislature and give us a leg up and secure for us miles away from the cliff by reducing carbon emissions and lessen global warming.
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Prosy Abarquez-Delacruz, J.D. writes a weekly column for Asian Journal, called “Rhizomes.” She has been writing for AJ Press for 10 years. She also contributes to Balikbayan Magazine. Her training and experiences are in science, food technology, law and community volunteerism for 4 decades. She holds a B.S. degree from the University of the Philippines, a law degree from Whittier College School of Law in California and a certificate on 21st Century Leadership from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. She has been a participant in NVM Writing Workshops taught by Prof. Peter Bacho for 4 years and Prof. Russell Leong. She has travelled to France, Holland, Belgium, Japan, Costa Rica, Mexico and over 22 national parks in the US, in her pursuit of love for nature and the arts.