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Berkeley Public Health team reports on prison ventilation conditions during COVID-19 outbreaks; wins grant for related research

Dr. Elizabeth M. Noth, an associate researcher in Environmental Health Sciences at UC Berkeley School of Public Health, has won a state grant to calculate the risks of climate change–related wildfire smoke and excess heat to vulnerable populations in California.

The $662,319 grant will support Noth’s research on vulnerable populations that share key characteristics which put them at high risk of heat illness and wildfire-related respiratory problems.

The study subjects will include warehouse and storage workers, people who are incarcerated or who work with inmates, active duty military personnel in California, and workers at wildfire firefighter camps, among others.

Each of these populations lives and works in parts of California that are more likely to be adversely impacted by heat and/or wildfire smoke than coastal areas, Noth said, and as a group, they have been largely understudied and unaccounted for in policy planning.

Noth, who also directs the Industrial hygiene program at the UC Berkeley Center for Occupational and Environmental Health, said the researchers will also  evaluate the trade-offs that arise between the need for climate change-related risk mitigation and occupational safety, and propose solutions to mitigate climate change-related hazards.

The grant team includes Adnan Khan, a formerly incarcerated filmmaker, whom Noth said will conduct interviews with warehouse workers and other formerly incarcerated individuals, with an eye toward producing a documentary film about the issue.

“It’s not the focus of the grant, but it’s one of the things we’re most excited about,” she said. “Most of the money will go toward academic personnel and data prep.”

Announcement of the grant came just a few days before Noth and colleagues published a study on ventilation conditions during COVID-19 outbreaks in six California state prisons.

The paper, posted November 7, 2023 in PLOS ONE, found that despite the fact that COVID-19 infections in prisons were five times the rate in non-incarcerated people, there is little understanding of successful mechanisms for reducing transmission. They concluded that ventilation was often subpar, and suggested that improvements become a central component of emergency respiratory pandemic preparedness and response plans.

“Given the location of prisons in wildfire prone areas,” the authors wrote, “properly functioning ventilation and air filtration systems are a minimum requirement in reducing disproportionate exposures to smoke for incarcerated populations.”

The researchers recommended that California and other states adopt their assessment methods to identify high-risk areas and monitor the impact of mitigation methods designed to improve ventilation.

Rachel Sklar, the study’s lead author, who received her PhD from Berkeley Public Health in 2020 and worked with Noth and other researchers on the project, is currently a postdoctoral researcher at UCSF. She is also part of Noth’s grant team.

“You hear about the prison conditions from former and presently incarcerated people, but it’s very rare to go in and quantify the conditions,” Sklar said.

“We were there during normal operations and we did have a chance to talk to a lot of the residents, including inmate councils, who are formal representatives. It wasn’t news to them that the ventilation systems were functioning in a sub optimal way and affecting their health—even before COVID.”

Additional co-authors include: Ada Kwan, PhD, and David Sear, UCSF; and Stefano Bertozzi, Berkeley Public Health.  

Funding was provided by the California Prison Receivership Office, which, under a federal court order, oversees delivery of healthcare services in California’s state prison system. All authors were also funded by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, including but not limited to the work presented in this manuscript.