The air quality monitor that sits on the counter in the Fishers' dining room rules their lives.
On red days, the screen shows an image of a man wearing a face mask, indicating the air is dangerous to breathe. Stanley and Perky Fisher shut the doors and windows of their home on the Nipomo Mesa, they turn on expensive air filters and they don’t go outside.
"It just is the boss of what we do. And when the wind is really bad, we try to get out of here," Perky Fisher said.
She and her husband, Stanley, live in a community of homes, businesses and schools that are often clouded by a plume of dust that blows over a swath of the South County from the Oceano Dunes. The conditions are particularly dangerous for Stanley, who is dying from lung disease.
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Doctors, public health officials and air quality analysts all say the air on the Mesa often contains tiny particles that can cause serious lung and cardiovascular diseases. Last year, air measured by monitors at a fire station near the Fishers' home violated California health standards on 98 days.
That plume and its public health effects are at the heart of an action by the San Luis Obispo County Air Pollution Control District against State Parks to close areas of Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area to riding, because APCD says off-road vehicles riding on the sand contributes to the dust emissions.
On Wednesday, an APCD Hearing Board will consider adopting a settlement agreement between APCD and State Parks that officials say will reduce the pollution by 30 percent over five years. The Fishers say that's "woefully inadequate."
As bad as wildfire smoke
On days that are really bad, the health risk from the air pollution is similar to that of wildfires.
It can cause shortness of breath, asthma attacks or heart attacks. It can cause chronic illness. It's believed to have impacts on lung development in fetuses and newborns.
Of course, not everyone who lives in the area will experience health consequences.
"We have had moments where (the air) can be harmful for all individuals," said county Public Health Officer Penny Borenstein. "Most of the times when our air quality readings are above the state standard, that typically means the conditions are potentially hazardous to young children, pregnant women, the elderly, and those with underlying conditions."
Stanley Fisher, 81, falls into the last two categories.
In early 2017, he was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, end-stage lung disease, and given three to five years to live.
The plume of dust didn't cause his deadly disease. No one can say what caused his disease, and he's lived a long life that's exposed him to various risks.
But, Fisher said, "It certainly makes everything worse."
"On bad wind days, 60 to 100 per year, we stay inside or leave for a few hours. We have an online monitor to the air quality website and plan our days based on reported readings," Stanley Fisher said. But, "The micron particles that penetrate deep into the lungs are not visible, so most people without a monitor don't consider it a problem and go about their daily activities."
The dust plume that blows across South County and into Santa Barbara County carries tiny molecules called particulate matter, or particle pollution. Some particles are so fine they can only be detected using an electron microscope.
Studies have shown that during wind events, dust emissions from the riding areas ofthe Oceano Dunes were higher than those from the non-riding areas, although critics have contested the findings.
Vehicle activity on the Dunes cause devegetation, destabilization of the dune structure and loss of possible natural surface crusting of the sand — "all of which contribute to increased emissions from the ODSVRA which impact the downwind areas on the Nipomo Mesa," according to a white paper on the particulate air pollution in the Nipomo Mesa area.
Even if all riding was stopped on the Dunes, APCD says dust would still blow across the Mesa. But violations of the state health standards would drastically reduce to about 10 times a year.
The particles in the South County dust plume are primarily PM10 and PM2.5 silica particles (not necessarily crystalline silica) or very fine sand, according to APCD Officer Gary Willey. PM10 are 10 micrometers and smaller, or about seven times smaller than the average human hair.
Dr. Michael Ryan, a pulmonary and critical care physician practicing with Central Coast Chest Consultants in both San Luis Obispo and Santa Maria who reviewed research on air pollution at the request of The Tribune, said higher levels of PM2 and PM10 in general are associated with increased health risks.
"They correlate with a rise in emergency room visits for difficulty breathing, hospitalization, increased inhaler usage and are longitudinally associated with worsened lung function," Ryan said.
That's because the particulates become caught in the lung tissue, "which result in causing lung inflammation by varied means that result in injury to the air sacks of the lungs, the little airways of the lungs and the supporting architecture of lung tissue," Ryan said.
All that is to say inhaling that kind of air pollution "will make it hard to breathe and may result in permanent changes in lung function."
Borenstein said people have a tendency to underestimate health risks if the effect does not happen universally.
"We learn what the impacts are to human health from large studies that show those exposures are likely to cause a certain health effect. It does not mean that everyone with that exposure will be effected," Borenstein said.
Where the plume carries PM10 pollution depends on the wind, but the Air Pollution Control District developed a rough estimate of its shape and size. The district's map shows the plume's general location in red and orange that spreads to the southeast before gradually dispersing.
Areas in red are impacted the most.
An air monitor at the Cal Fire station (called CDF) in the red area registered 98 days last year when the average concentration of inhalable particles violated the state standard in a 24-hour period. A monitor west of the Trilogy housing community (called Mesa2) in the dark orange area measured 55 violations of the PM10 standard last year. And a monitor (called NRP) in the light orange area at Nipomo Regional Park measured 20 violations, APCD data show.
Struggling to breathe
The Fishers live in the orange area. The house they moved to in 2009 is a few miles from the Oceano Dunes, and they often see the haze wafting through the trees across the golf course from their backyard.
"I was a very active person. I was still high-functioning three years ago," Fisher said.
He golfed and took a 70-mile snow mobile trip with two friends to 13,000 feet in Montanain temperatures as low as18 below zero.
About a year and half ago, he got sick with a cold that turned into pneumonia, resulting in hospitalization and the lung diagnoses. His lung function dropped from about 10 percent below normal to about 60 percent below normal, leaving him tied to an oxygen machine and fleeing his home when the monitor turns red.
"Weekly, he has less things he can do. It's harder for him to breathe. When he gets a spasm of not being able to breathe at all and I see him struggling, it's just heartbreaking," Perky Fisher said.
They are also concerned about the hundreds of farm workers who pick strawberries down the road on windy days, the children who live in the area, and the families moving into the community. About 165 new family homes are scheduled to be built there soon.
"How are they going to grow up with healthy lungs? How are they going to be hurt?" Fisher said. "To me, it's just ridiculous. They stopped people from smoking. Why can't they stop this?"
They're both outraged with public officials who they say haven't put public health first.
"I'm disappointed that our brand new APCD officer has not been more aggressive," Stanley Fisher said. "There is no question this is a health hazard. Does the right to recreate override public health and the right to clean air?"