Wildfire smoke in Summit County and the rest of Colorado is toxic and unprecedented
August 2, 2018
Lately, things just don't seem the same in the skies over Summit County. A yellow haze has been shrouding the mountains in gloom, a product of wildfires raging across the state, especially the still-raging Lake Christine Fire in nearby Basalt.
For anyone worried about the impact the smoke is having on human health, the good news is that you can avoid it; the bad news is how.
"When you look at the recommendations to avoid the smoke, it's basically just run and hide," said Dr. Carl White, pediatric pulmonologist at Children's Hospital Colorado in Denver and director of the pediatric airway research center at the University of Colorado's School of Medicine. "Other than that, you can take basic precautions like avoiding going outdoors, avoiding vigorous exercise, closing windows and avoiding outdoor activities."
White, who owns a house in Frisco, said he understands how that advice sounds to anyone living in Summit County, where people basically live outdoors in the summer.
"I'm going to be hiking there in the middle of the month, and practicing for a triathlon, and it breaks my heart how the smoke is going to screw things up," White said.
By "screw things up," White refers to health problems ranging from irritated eyes and coughing to acute or chronic conditions like heart attacks, strokes or cancer. White said that children are particularly susceptible to negative effects of the smoke.
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"The first issue is that children have higher minute ventilation per body weight," which means that children breathe more air for their body weight than adults, magnifying the effect the air quality has on their body. "The second issue is that children are still developing their lungs, and more interference with the normal lung chemistry means impact to growth and development of the lung," White said.
Aside from kids, other vulnerable individuals include people with existing heart or breathing problems, the elderly, pregnant women and other people with compromised immune systems or conditions.
White said that there are two primary dangers from the wildfire smoke in the area. The first is a high amount of fine particulate matter in the air of less than 2.5 micrometers, known as PM 2.5, which is small enough to get into the lungs and into the bloodstream. PM 2.5 is the majority of what we see as haze in the air.
White said that inhaling PM 2.5 can turn the body's clotting system on and increase the risk of heart attacks or strokes. Fortunately, PM 2.5 can be safely filtered with N95 or N100 type particulate masks.
However, even if you're willing to put that dust mask on whenever you go outside this summer, it doesn't filter out the other toxic danger in wildfire smoke — the chemicals released when wood burns. White rattled off a list of all the toxic compounds in wildfire smoke that can cause cancer or other chronic health issues.
"Carbon monoxide, acrolein, formaldehyde, benzene, benzopyrene, dibenzanthracene, nitrogen oxide," and so on. White pointed out that many of these chemicals are present in cigarette smoke, which can make breathing in mountain air during very smoky periods almost as bad as breathing second-hand smoke.
White said the healthiest time to be outdoors to exercise when air quality is bad is the hour after a late afternoon rain during monsoon season. Outside of that, you may be risking your health.
Though it can be assumed that this current parade of health horrors will pass when winter sets in and this season's fires die out, Colorado still has to look forward to wildfire summers from here on out as part of the "new normal." That is perhaps the most unsettling fact: We just don't know what season after season of huge, frequent wildfires and associated smoke will do to long-term human health.
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"This is uncharted territory as far as the amount of smoke being inhaled by a large population," White said, pointing out that the California wildfires have severely impacted air quality there. "Experiments have been done exposing animals to this kind of toxic smoke long term and we know that firefighters suffer from the massive amount of air they inhale while working. But what we're seeing now is a huge human experiment in progress."
In other words, breathing will probably get more and more dangerous in Summit and across Colorado over time as megafires become hotter, larger and more frequent. It is possible that Colorado will get sicker and sicker over time.
For those hoping to avoid that depressing thought, there is some encouragement in the short-term for the healthier among us.
"The good news for healthy individuals is that once the smoke goes away, any short-term symptoms should go away and they should not suffer from chronic health problems," said Amy Wineland, the county's director of public health."But if symptoms persist, individuals should go see their health provider and get checked out."
Wineland advised residents use HEPA-based air filters in their home and take other standard measures already advised, including paying attention to air quality updates, staying indoors when there's a lot of smoke in the air and not performing a lot of outdoor physical activity, as that greatly increases air inhalation. The National Jewish Health Lung Line also has registered nurses available to speak about lung health concerns or questions at 1-800-222-5864.
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