Athletes face health impacts of smoke days


A gray smoke cloud loomed over the Bay Area in mid-September, painting the sky gray and blocking the hills from sight. Wildfires in Northern California and Oregon sent smoke down to Berkeley, with air quality reaching 130 on the Air Quality Index  (AQI)according to Berkeleyside, levels considered unhealthy for those with pulmonary conditions. As a result, many Berkeley High School sports practices were reduced in time and intensity, and some games were canceled in order to maintain the health of student athletes.

“I started coughing half of my lung out,” said Micaela Bedolla Garcia, a sophomore who plays soccer. When the air started getting bad she instantly got worried, knowing that as a result of her asthma, her body wouldn’t react well to the smoke. She said that through most sports and physical activities at the time of the wildfires, her coughing increased. 

Theodore Lam, a sophomore who runs track and cross-country, spoke of his reduced motivation for running during poor air conditions, saying, “It’s not really worth racing because it slows you down so much. (Running) feels terrible and it’s bad for your lungs.” He expressed worries about the long term effects of running and racing in such conditions.

Berkeley Unified School District’s policy for when AQI levels reach between 101-150, as it did in September, is to reduce outdoor athletic practices to intervals of 30 minutes each at maximum, and to increase rest breaks. Many times, however, coaches will have to resort to canceling games in order to ensure the health of students. The line between safe and unhealthy can be difficult to draw for administrators and coaches alike, who usually have students with different personal thresholds. 

Stephanie Deflorio-Barker, an epidemiologist at the US Environmental Protection Agency, stressed how differently individual people will respond to low air quality. Generally, she said, if you’re a “healthy 20 year old college aged adult doing some high intensity exercise, whatever bad air quality that’s in the air kind of gets overridden by the benefit of said physical activity.” For teenagers and children that’s not typically the case. She theorized that the development of one’s lungs may be at fault for them being more susceptible to the negative effects of air pollution, but said that researchers have yet to find a sturdy biological component supporting why the effects of air pollution and exercise don’t even out in adolescents in the same way they do for adults. 

With wildfire smoke sent by winds leading to effects such as decreased lung function even in healthy adults, many worry about how to play sports or exercise when air quality drops. In terms of exercising, one study by Luisa V. Guiles, an assistant professor at the University of Fraser Valley, indicated that when exercising in low air quality, working out for shorter periods at higher intensity is much healthier for your lungs and body than doing so for a long period of time at a lower intensity. When it comes down to it, a half hour long, extremely intense exercise in bad air quality is better for your body than a less intense, longer workout because you’re in the bad air for that much less time. 

In 2022, the United Nations Environment Programme predicted a 50 percent rise in wildfires in the years leading up to 2100. As wildfires become more common, the quality of the air that BHS athletes breathe is likely to worsen. The exact long term impacts of this poor air quality, however,  we are yet to know.