Smoke, wildfires, breathing issues, ash and heat are all-too familiar conditions for student-athletes during the sizzling early months of school. With cooler temperatures on their way, students are breathing easier — literally.
California’s current air quality in the San Joaquin Valley makes practices and games difficult to play with long periods of triple-digit temperatures and smoke from the wildfires of neighboring counties Amador and Calaveras.
The Valley fire has set Lake, Sonoma and Napa counties aflame — marking it the third largest fire in California history. The Butte fire in Amador and Calaveras now ranks as the seventh-worst fire in state history.
According to the American Lung Association, San Joaquin Valley’s air quality is currently one of the regions with the worst air quality in California, primarily due to ozone and the development of tiny particle pollution.
California’s conditions have become extra dry because of the drought, causing dust to concentrate in the air as well as fine particulate matter from smoke.
“When the air gets much hotter we can see that the air quality worsens,” Environmental Science teacher Isabel Cuerpo said. “During these types of weather I would advise coaches to take precautions even at moderate levels of air quality depending on the gravity of each student-athlete’s lung or breathing issues.”
Lodi Unified School District’s policy 3514 states that the Superintendent/Principal has the responsibility of establishing “regulations to prevent and/or reduce environmental hazards and limit outdoor activities when necessary due to poor outdoor air quality, including excessive smog, smoke, or ozone or when ultraviolet radiation levels indicate a high risk of harm.”
“Everything was covered in ash,” Cuerpo said referring to the week of September 9-11 when temperatures reached 104 degrees. “I had to have my inhaler that weekend because I had such a difficult time breathing.”
If this is the case, the question of why the athletic department and administration allowed student-athletes to continue to practice in unfavorable air quality between September 9 and September 11 remains.
“We have no policy on air qualities but it will be something we may have to look into further or have a policy come from the school district because there were some districts in central California that canceled games because of the wildfire,” Athletic Director Anthony Sahyoun said.
With no policy or regulation for air quality in action, all fall sports were allowed to practice regardless of air contaminants.
Bear Creek’s L.I.F.E. club hangs flags representing the air quality every morning.
The green flag (0-50) means that the air quality is good: no limitations. The yellow flag (51-100) means moderate: extremely sensitive people with respiratory diseases should consider limiting outdoor exertion. The orange flag (101-150) represents unhealthy air quality: primarily sensitive groups should limit prolonged outdoor exertion. The red flag represents (151-200) unhealthy: sensitive people should avoid outdoor exertion, and everyone else should limit prolonged outdoor exertion during peak of ozone periods.
The yellow flags were flown on September 7 and 10. The orange flag was flown on two consecutive days — September 8 and 9 — when ozone levels were monitored to be at 81 to 84 ppb around 3 p.m.: which is the time sport practices start.
“I just pushed myself even though I have asthma, but when I have a hard time breathing, my soccer coach tells me to take it easy,” sophomore Avishek Kumar said.
Pediatricians and physicians believe that the increase in children with breathing and respiratory illnesses such as asthma is due to the wildfires and drought.
According to Anthony Presto who spoke on behalf of the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District in an interview with Capital Public Radio, “We have smoke coming in from various fires around the Sierra, especially the Rough Fire, which is the largest fire in the state, creating particulate pollution.”
As a result, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District issued an air alert and health warning for worsening air quality.
Coaches reserve the discretion to continue their practice, but the air was too unhealthy for extremely sensitive children and adults to be permitted to participate in outdoor activity.
“We made administrative decisions on our own but to my knowledge we do not follow any policy,” Sahyoun said.