August 28, 2021

Forest-fires versus Industrial Pollution: Should we Question the “Air Quality Index?”

The unfortunate proliferation of forest fires throughout the world has brought the Air Quality Index (AQI) to the fore.

Everyone affected by big fires (I am in Northern California where 800,000 acres are burning) cannot ignore the AQI. It is posted on the doors of almost every supermarket, coffee shop, and many businesses. It is updated regularly in news and weather reports. I never thought much about what the index showed because I always felt pretty much the same whether the index was in the “Hazard Zone” above 250, or in the relatively benign area below 150, “Dangerous for Sensitive People.”

I was spurred to think over the matter of AQI when I recently called a friend whom I hadn’t seen in a while to go out with for coffee. He first said, “Yes,” but then hesitated and said to call him back after he checked the AQI.

When I called him back an hour later, he said that the AQI was around 150 and he didn’t feel safe to go for coffee. What? Now either that is a bad excuse for not wanting to see me, or he is really paranoid.

“The hell with him,” I thought and took my 76-year-old bag of bones on a five-mile bike ride to town, had my coffee, and blasted back having a hell of a good ride.

Around here in Northern California, where I am living, the air quality due to smoke appears like a 1960s smoggy Los Angeles day (before smog tests), hazy like fog, but that is where the similarity ends. Smog is dangerous, and as a high school kid, I know firsthand its negative effects when the levels are high.

But wood fires are not the same. I have felt great the entire period during these unfortunate forest fires. The incident with my friend, also with my age, set me to thinking about the AQI and whether or not there is some carelessness in equating the dangers from wood-burning and conflating the smoke from organic substances, wood, with car exhaust and factory fumes.

I feel the smog in big cities affects me, but I don’t feel anything from the forest fire smoke.

Is the AQI health index believable? I doubt it, and here is why.

Throughout mountainous regions in the world where winters are sub-zero and people live off the grid, wood fires are burned throughout the winter, and often with little use of chimneys, so more heat stays inside. I lived alone in a tiny two-room cabin in the Everest region for one year (from 1969 to 1970), and I had a fire going throughout the winter as did everyone else in the area. Most homes in the Himalaya regions are blackened from the smoke over the years, yet the Sherpas, Tibetans, and hill people of India and Nepal are noted for their strength, health, and long life.

According to one source, “Sherpas are among the most unfathomably fit athletes around. Sherpas have spent thousands of years living at high altitudes, so it should be unsurprising that they have adapted to become more efficient at using oxygen and generating energy. When those of us from lower-lying countries spend time at high altitude, our bodies adapt to some extent to become more ‘Sherpa-like,’ but we are no match for their efficiency.”

Consider that Sherpas spent their time growing up in smoke-filled cottages during winter months, and yet they are hired as guides to the world’s highest peaks where they have won the admiration of the world’s top mountaineers such as Sir Edmund Hillary and Reinhart Messner, and have acquired the nickname, “Tigers of the Himalayas.”

Similarly, people in the extreme parts of north India, the Hunza Valley in the Himalayas, are the longest living people per capita anywhere. It is the only place in the world where over 100-years-old is the norm, and yet they too burn wood all winter long with little ventilation.

The Hunza tribe resides in Pakistan’s Hunza Valley. However, their origins are considered to be India’s Jammu and Kashmir region of the Himalayas. The Hunza is the center of attraction for people around the world because of their longevity and the happy life they lead. The average life expectancy of the Hunza people is 100 years, while some exceed 120.

The most striking is the example of India’s sadhus. The sadhus of India, those naked ascetics who smear themselves with ash, have a unique form of meditation wherein they light a wood fire in a clay bowl in front of them and throw a wool blanket over their head forming a Teepee. They remain for long periods of time, often hours, as part of a daily ritual in the worship of Lord Shiva, and yet, the sadhus too are noted for their longevity.

As for the sadhus, having attended four Kumbh Mela (month-long religious gatherings held every 12 years attracting at least 30 million people) and having interviewed many sadhus myself, I can attest to their longevity from their verbal testimony which they claim is superior to our Western norm. As one sadhu told me, “When you leave this Kumbh Mela, you will return to a comfortable home, but when I leave, I will take the sky for my blanket and the earth for my bed, and if I get sick, the mother Earth provides for me.”

The sadhus claim they live long and are generally illness-free.

When googling the age of sadhus for this article, I found everything from 150 to 5,000 years old (including a purported film of the 5000-year-old sadhu. Therefore, rather than err on the side of absurdity, I beg the reader to accept what I personally heard.

The AQI goes from 0-300, but does it really mean anything? Is the information we are receiving about forest-fire smoke really conflated with far more toxic fumes that do lead to poor health? Seems to me it is a question worth asking.

I am not advocating carelessness, but misinformation for the sake of “news” is common, and perhaps the AQI index is being misused.

A good first step would be to draw some of the comparisons I alluded to above. How wood smoke compares with industrial pollution would be a good place to start a narrative.


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