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Smoke Inhalation Adds to the Difficulties Athletes are Facing Right Now


Many student-athletes at Berkeley High School (BHS) have been grappling with the unprecedented effects of the pandemic on their athletic routines. Over the past few weeks, the additional obstacle of smoke and poor air quality meant activities had to be kept inside; without access to team-workout space or the outdoors, BHS athletes were forced to get even more creative with their athletics. 

Ben Morgan, a senior in Academic Choice (AC), said that when the fires hit he “had to find an indoor place to workout, which is really hard during COVID.” Morgan is a baseball player, and before the fires was used to performing a rigorous exercise routine daily. With a week of air quality in the “very unhealthy” range, Morgan had to let go of his daily runs and other cardio, but still did some hitting and catching in the smoke. Despite his attempts to spend minimal time outside, Morgan felt the effect of the poor air quality, explaining that the smoke made him easily winded and tired. He added that the haziness “made it unmotivating to be out there” because the scene felt so dark and apocalyptic. 

Leah Wildmann, also a senior in AC, felt similarly about the overcast look the smoke provided. Before the fires, Wildmann worked out every day, and practiced softball and tennis frequently. Although she stayed entirely indoors when the poor air quality hit, the haziness still made her feel mentally exhausted, despite avoiding smoke inhalation. Not being able to exercise like normally meant Wildmann fell out of shape and out of practice compared to her condition before the fires hit, something she had to overcome once the air cleared up. However, health sometimes means making the difficult choice to stay inside; the effects of smoke inhalation, both short and long term, can be extremely detrimental to one’s physical wellbeing.

The wildfire smoke that engulfed California in recent weeks contained carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and particulate matter, among other toxic chemicals and particles. Exposure to this type of smoke causes immediate, acute effects, such as eye, nose, and throat irritation. The inhalation of carbon monoxide, which decreases the body’s oxygen supply, can also lead to headaches, exhaustion, and disorientation. The immediate effects of smoke are only exacerbated by physical exertion, which increases one’s rate of respiration and ingestion of particles. These initial symptoms can last a few days after exposure, but repeated exposure could also lead to more serious problems for those with underlying health issues, such as asthma or cardiovascular disease. COVID-19 has, of course, complicated things; the surgical masks typically worn during the pandemic do little to stop particulate inhalation, and N95s — the best masks to block smoke inhalation — have a valve that prevents them from being COVID-19-safe. 

Although Berkeley is experiencing a respite from the smoke of the past few weeks, wildfire season is not yet over. Both Morgan and Wildmann are very appreciative of the good air quality right now, of which they are taking full advantage. Morgan adds that he’s planning to invest in some indoor work-out equipment, in anticipation of more smoky days. “Fitness has been really important to me mentally during the pandemic, and I need to make sure I can balance that with my physical health,” he said. This sentiment is extremely important; for athletes and non-athletes alike, the balance between mental and physical health is absolutely essential.