Toxic Air

This post addresses the immediate as well as long term effects of poor air quality resulting from the Camp Fire in Northern California.

It is now Day 12 of that fire. As of this writing, the death count is 79 and climbing, and the number of people rendered homeless is in the thousands.

Heartbreaking. It goes without saying that both the immediate and long-term damages are staggering. Clearly, these damages are felt most acutely by the residents of Paradise, California.

But, some of the damage is spread more widely, reaching into the Bay Area. For us in the Bay Area, the air we have had to breathe for the past 12 days has been horribly toxic (the picture of this post was taken from the Tonal company Slack account).

So, not ignoring and not without sympathy for the devastating loss of life and property, I want to use this post to discuss the topic of poor air quality, and its impact on our lives.

Specifically, in this post, I address sensation, wearing masks, the "greenest grass", toxins, measuring toxicity, and detox.


Humans normally have five senses: sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste. Of these, the most important over these past 12 smoke-filled days has been the sense of smell.

Now I am probably one of the least sentient people I know. Although all of these five senses more or less work for me, my degree of sensitivity seems paltry compared with that of others. This is particularly true for my poor sense of smell.

Recently, science has shown that women have markedly more smell-oriented neurons in their brains than do men. Moreover, anyone who has known a pregnant woman probably knows that they develop what seems like super-human, super-power smelling abilities during pregnancy, among other powers.

So for these reasons, knowing that I couldn't smell much these past 12 days, early on, I would frequently ask the women around me: "Do you smell anything? Sense anything in the air?"

Upon receiving an affirmative answer, I would immediately don my N95 breathing mask that I had unearthed from some painting supplies that my wife had stored in our barn.

Wearing Masks

On day 5 of this toxic smoke disaster, I attended a San Francisco 49er game with a friend of mine, despite my wife challenging me with: "Are you crazy?"

With the exception of one pregnant woman, my friend and I were the only people that I saw wearing masks in and around the stadium. There were no masked individuals in neighboring bleacher seats, none in the parking lot when we walked through, none in the crowded bathroom, none anywhere.

Why was that? I suspect the reason is that there is a social stigma in wearing a breathing mask. As in, "What, are you so wimpy that you need a mask? Just suck it up!"

Well, when I said I was insentient, I didn't mean just in terms of the physical senses. I am also emotionally, and often socially, clueless. For example, it's rare that I feel the emotions of anxiety, guilt, shame, empathy, and so forth.

So looking like a doofus, being the only person wearing an N95 mask — while passing through the Niner tail-gate parties, on a Caltrain car full of commuters, walking through town — didn't cause me one whit of personal unease.

Now, don't read that as bragging. At 55, I certainly understand my insensibilities as "deficiencies", not as "super-powers".

But deficient or not, I felt "lucky" these past two weeks, because due to my deficiencies, not only have I've worn my mask regularly, I also ordered a portable air quality detector. I purchased it precisely because I couldn't trust my own senses.

The Greenest Grass

Meanwhile, back at home, in the Los Gatos mountains, worried about the potential of fire up here, we were walking around wearing breathing masks, and carrying and constantly checking our portable air quality detector; literally hiding inside our home.

So a certain question arose within our family: Should we consider moving if this is the "new abnormal"?

Pondering that question during these horribly, smoky days, I discovered the company PurpleAir. This company OEMs an air quality sensor that their customers install on their properties and connect to their Wi-Fi. The company website has a worldwide map showing up-to-the-minute readings from their customers' sensors. It's an amazing site.

The image pictured shows a PurpleAir map of the Bay Area on the 11th smoky day. Notice that the whole valley is red, with San Francisco and Oakland being maroon. These colors denote very unhealthy air.

Now notice the orange and yellow circles labeled 80 and 55 near the bottom right. Our house is near one of those 80s. A quick glance at the map shows that we already live in the greenest grass of the Bay Area — at least when it comes to air quality.

Indeed the other picture shows the reading of our Temtop P600 at the home-schooling desk of our daughter, early on the morning of the 11th day. That "36.5" on the face of the device is the lowest reading we've had in and around our house since we received the detector in the mail 4 days ago.

I guess this means that we can report to the rest of the Bay Area that "the end is near, my friends".


But while the end of this poor air quality ordeal may be near, the fact is that 7 million people have been breathing horribly toxic air for 12 days.

The heart-rending photos from the Camp Fire show thousands of homes and business incinerated. Other photos show molten rivers of aluminum running from burned out cars (the melting point of aluminum exceeds 1000 degrees F).

Just look around the room you are in right now. What do you see?

In our home-schooling office, I see electronic devices, furniture, plastic parts, drywall, painted walls, flooring, etc. etc. The Camp Fire turned all of these things into the smoke that has blanketed the Bay Area for 12 days and counting.

In a word: toxic.

For 12 days, the 7 million people of the Bay Area have been subjected to what is probably the most diverse toxic air the world has ever known. The key word is "diverse". Clearly, tremendous past and even present pollution has been caused by vehicle exhaust, coal burning, wood fires, and belching chemical plants. All of this poor air quality has been detrimental to human health.

But have millions ever been subjected, days on end, to the kinds of diverse toxins created by the horrible Camp Fire?

Years from now, I expect scientists to publish epidemiological studies of the effects on we, the Bay Area inhabitants, of the 12 days of diverse toxic smoke. Sadly, I see these studies looking at increased rates of asthma, heart disease, cancer, etc.

Measuring Toxicity

Well, if I'm right that we Bay Area folk have ingested two weeks of toxic air, a next question is: What signs are there that our bodies have ingested these toxins? This question is especially poignant for insentient me because I'm the last person to smell funky air, so I'm the last to learn that I'm being poisoned.

One oblique way to "measure" toxic ingestion is, I believe, to consider deep sleep. This may sound like an oxymoron, but hear me out.

"Why We Sleep" is a profound book that I read this year. Chapter 8 — Cancer, Heart Attacks, and a Shorter Life — is about the benefits of sleep, particularly deep sleep, and the dangers of its absence. I found the implications of this chapter so remarkable that I loaned the book to some friends of mine at Tonal just to read this chapter.

One set of studies this chapter addresses concerns the affect of deep sleep on our immune systems. Subjects (college age kids) were exposed to a virus, and the researchers studied their antibody responses. Scientists, over and over, found a clear positive correlation between length of sleep and antibody response. Conclusion of the book: "An intimate and bidirectional association exists between your sleep and your immune system."

Well, if that is true, and this 12-day smoke has toxified our bodies, then might we expect to experience more deep sleep during this time — provided we give our bodies ample windows of opportunity for this effect?

That's what my Fitbit data shows. On the 10th morning of this smoky crap, my Fitbit watch recorded 2 hours and 44 minutes (164 minutes) of deep sleep.

Every morning, I check my sleep stats. As of today, my Fitbit data has over 500 days of deep sleep measurements. The moment I saw "2:44" for my deep sleep stats last Sunday, I knew that my Fitbit sleep stats had set a personal record.

Indeed, the histogram shown proves this. This graph shows all 500+ days, grouped and counted by length of deep sleep. You can see from this graph that I normally get about 1.5 hours of deep sleep a night, and 2:44 is more than two standard deviations from this median.

Regarding the top ten deep sleep measurements from my data, notice that the reading from Sunday takes the pole position.

But look at position #2: 2017-10-14. What was happening around the Bay Area that time last year? Tubbs Fire! Specifically, that day is about a week after the tragic Tubbs Fire started in Napa County, north of Silicon Valley.

Look at position #7: 2018-11-11. That is day #4 of the Camp Fire, just last week.

It may be that the ample window I have been giving my body for sleep each night is being used by my body to help detoxify it from the "second hand smoke" of nearby fires.

A fanciful thought, perhaps, but why stop there?


If sound sleep is a good method of detoxing our bodies, a next question is: What are other effective detox methods? This question brings me to another book I read a few years go: "Toxin Toxout". In that book, the authors canvas many different popular "detox programs".

In their analysis, they consider scientific studies that test these programs. They conclude that only two detox methods have been scientifically validated to work: (1) vigorous exercise; and (2) sauna/steam showers.

The problem with vigorous exercise is that we breathe harder, and doing so wearing a mask makes exercise even more difficult, but doing so without a mask is worst of all.

So short of using a Tonal strength training machine in a closed room with an air purifier, option #1 for detoxing is out for the meantime.

For option #2, we in our family are lucky to have a steam shower. Never in my imagination at the time we installed it did I think we would be using it to detox ourselves on account of 12 straight days of toxic air.

But that's exactly what our family has been doing this week.

Strange days indeed.