Objectives: In July 1988, a fire destroyed a huge supermarket warehouse in Richmond, Calif, sending smoke into residential neighborhoods for nearly a week. There was no organized public health response. To evaluate the respiratory health impact on the general population, a survey of emergency room visits and hospital admissions to the two acute-care hospitals serving the population downwind was conducted.
Methods: Medical records of 489 patients meeting specified diagnostic criteria during the week of the fire and several reference periods were abstracted. Ratios of proportions for respiratory diagnoses (i.e., emergency room visits for a given diagnosis/total emergency room visits) were calculated, comparing the fire week with the reference periods, and 1988 mortality data for the area were reviewed.
Results: Ratios of proportions for emergency room visits for asthma and all lower respiratory conditions increased significantly during the fire. Respiratory-related hospitalizations also increased. However, there was no observable increase in respiratory mortality.
Conclusions: This fire was found to have had a moderate impact on the respiratory health of local residents. Public health intervention is indicated to prevent respiratory morbidity when extended exposure to structural fire smoke is predictable.