The Clewiston News

Letter to the Editor

Let’s talk: Prescribed cane burning and our health

The outside-generated conflict surrounding prescribed cane burnings in Florida continues. Does it and will it affect my health or the health of my loved ones? What can I do? These are questions we should be asking regarding many substances and/or activities within our homes and communities.

Because of the continued agitation and allegations from the Sierra Club; I decided to do some research. I talked with a Florida pulmonologist (lung specialists), a Florida air quality expert, The American Lung Association, and other physicians. I want to share what I discovered.

Up front, I want you to know that I have asthma. So, for transparency sake, I wanted to share that I do have a very personal interest. I also want to share that I worked in Hendry and Glades counties for 25-plus years at the Department of Health and was the health officer for many years, without a personal health episode. I traveled all over these counties in all weather conditions, including during cane harvest season and prescribed natural area/forestry burns.

Having both private and public experience helped me better understand that as far as Florida’s air quality, to be a “health threat,” one must experience the following three factors:

• Exposure — coming in direct contact with the VOC (volatile organic compounds)

• Duration — the health threat increases with duration of exposure

• Concentration — higher concentration, higher threat

If any/all of these are reduced; the threat is reduced. The most important of these is exposure. Without exposure, there is no health threat. So, when prescribed burning is done on days that maximize smoke rising well into the air (off the ground), exposure is minimized.”

Some studies have stated that “The VOC level in Belle Glade were 15 times higher during harvest season than during the growth season. It sounds devastating and it scares folks, however, the concentration level is insignificant. There is no health threat.

There is a dilution factor often overlooked when smoke leaves its source and rises into the air. Smoke (and VOC) concentration in 1 square mile of air 20 feet off the ground would be diluted by 558 million cubic feet of air. Smoke rising to 4,000 feet off the ground would be diluted even further.”

This is important for all of us to know and at least basically understand. I did NOT go as deep as the expert did; but general knowledge for us is of great value. It means when we see smoke rising into the air from a prescribed pre-harvest cane field burn, it is no threat to us because we are not being exposed to it.

Another measure of air quality is particulates or small particles in the air. The independent and credible Robert Wood Johnson and University of Wisconsin”s Annual Report on County Health Rankings states “Hendry and Glades Air particulate matter is lower than the State of Florida average. This is great for our rural areas. We do have challenges with lung issues and smoking, however.

Now, let’s continue talking about our health. No burning causes disease without the three factors above. The No. 1 risk to those with any type of respiratory or cardiac illnesses, children and elderly is cigarette smoking. When done in the home, there is exposure, duration and concentration. Second hand smoke is a risk for children to develop respiratory illnesses. It will also cause respiratory symptoms to someone living in the home with illness. It may also cause the person to use or potentially over use “prescribed puffers” to control symptoms. The State of Florida received large dollars from the tobacco settlement to offer and assist smokers and chewing tobacco persons cessation programs. We’ve all seen the anti-smoking ads that demonstrate the scope and consequences of the tobacco problem.

We contacted Hendry and Glades county healthcare providers and HRMC (Hendry Regional Medical Center) Emergency Room and Urgent Care Center to see if there were an increase in respiratory or cardiac visits during the prescribed burning season—RESULTS: There was not an increase in visits of cardiac or respiratory problems during the harvest season.

The literature also speaks loudly to forest fires or wood burning dangers The Florida Forest Service also does prescribed burning. When one has been diagnosed with a respiratory illness, cardiac condition, has children, has allergies, asthma, etc., the healthcare provider is prudent if he or she comes up with an action plan during these times.

From a Google search of recommendations: If there is a forest fire, or if YOU ever have concerns or symptoms for ANY reason (always document what was happening so it can be shared with your health provider, but if symptoms are severe, call 911):

Stay indoors.

Windows shut with air conditioning on; make sure filter is clean and it is using recycled indoor air.

Make sure air filters in the home are clean and changed (monthly).

Do not smoke or let anyone smoke in the home.

Do not use candles, fireplaces, gas logs, gas stoves.

Don’t vacuum, it stirs up particles already in the home that may come inside on feet or open windows.

If no air conditioning, go to someone’s home that does have it.

If you have symptoms, contact your healthcare provider.

Dust masks are not enough.

A well fitted N-95 or P-100 respirator (mask) will help if used properly.

Scarves and bandannas (wet or dry) will not help.

If driving, make sure air is recirculating inside, NOT bringing in outside air.

Some people can not have windows open at all, because of substances, ie pollen, etc. that can enter the home. This is a discussion with your healthcare provider.

We all want to be healthy and want our families to be healthy. There are safety measures that can be taken to maintain a healthy environment in our home so we don’t display symptoms from any cause. It is also helpful to look to credible experts in the field to help us understand what presents a “health threat” and what does not. Prescribed burning is a responsible way Forestry and area farmers maintain a healthy environment for the environment, their workers, and our communities. Get good health information and use it.

Patricia K. Dobbins
PKD Consulting