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6 questions with air quality expert Jeff Pierce
Millions on the East Coast this week experienced a problem all too familiar to Coloradans: poor air quality from wildfire smoke.
On Wednesday, New York City had the worst air quality of any major city in the world. Broadway productions and a Yankees baseball game were canceled due to smoke from wildfires in eastern Canada.
In parts of New York state on Wednesday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Quality Index rating topped 400, a level considered hazardous for everyone.
SOURCE asked Colorado State University Atmospheric Science Professor Jeff Pierce, an atmospheric chemist who studies air pollution and health, a few questions about the health implications of breathing wildfire smoke and resources that can help keep people safe.
How concerned should we be about breathing wildfire smoke, and when should we be concerned?
We don’t want to be breathing wildfire smoke more than we need to. One of the big open-ended questions is: What are the long-term effects of breathing wildfire smoke? We know that particulate matter from all sources, not just wildfire smoke, can lead to premature mortality. For individual smoke events, we know that people are more likely to go to the hospital for asthma attacks, to refill their inhalers and have other respiratory health issues when wildfire smoke hits – particularly when you get the concentrations that were in New York City on Wednesday, which was worse than Fort Collins’ air quality during the Cameron Peak Fire.
My message to people experiencing wildfire smoke would be that if you’re having unexplained eye irritation, runny nose or respiratory symptoms, it’s probably from the smoke. If you have the ability to be inside with an HVAC system or air conditioner with your windows closed, that’s helpful. Not everybody has access to that, so if there are community spaces that have those things and you just need some relief, you could go there.
Smoke generally loses the smoke smell over the course of about a day. If you’re near the fire, it smells like a campfire – that wood-burning smell. When smoke travels from far away, it generally loses that smell. It’s harder to be smoke aware in the Northeast because when it hits, it usually doesn’t smell like smoke. So, we need to think about communicating the hazard. It’s important to check air quality and take precautions even when you don’t smell smoke.
When do you consider the air quality too poor to go outside?
This has to do with a person’s preexisting conditions. If they are asthmatic, elderly, children or have respiratory problems, an AQI of 50 or 100 might be a wise cutoff.
Certainly, with the concentrations in New York this week, all people are susceptible to symptoms if they are doing something active outside. There’s a difference between walking to your car to drive to work and going for a run. How hard you are breathing matters.
When the AQI reading is 300 or above and the AQI alert colors are in the maroon or purple range, that’s when sports events will most likely be canceled and breathing recycled clean air is a good idea.
Do masks help prevent negative health effects from inhaling wildfire smoke?
I would absolutely recommend for people who are having symptoms and want relief to wear an N95 mask or KN95 mask, but make sure it fits along the face, particularly between the nose and cheekbones. That’s the most common place to leak. They will remove at least 95% of the smoke particles if fitting correctly, and that could be a huge help. These masks filter out PM2.5 and prevent those particles from getting into your lungs.
PM2.5 are particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, less than a tenth of the width of a human hair. These particles can get deep into lungs and cause respiratory problems or make it into the bloodstream. These are the ones we need to worry about for respiratory health.
What is the PurpleAir network and how can it be used as a resource?
PurpleAir is a company that makes air quality monitors that measure this particulate matter, PM2.5. The sensors cost between $200 and $300, and you can use them to monitor the air quality inside or outside your home. If you’re OK with your data being public, it will put it on a map for everyone to see.
If you live in a city that has 100,000 people, there will probably be 20 or more monitors in your city. You can get a good picture of how the concentrations vary within your city. Maybe some parks in the south part of the city are clear, and you can take your kid there. If you’re in the eastern U.S. now, the plume is wide enough that you’re probably not going to be able to drive 15 minutes and get to a significantly cleaner place.
The majority of the PurpleAir network is just public citizens, but there are also public health agencies that want to augment their more expensive EPA regulatory monitor. They might have just one $10,000 EPA monitor in their county, and they’ll put out 10 PurpleAir sensors to help understand what’s happening across the county.
How have you worked with PurpleAir in your research?
We’ve used the sensors to monitor air quality following prescribed burns in eastern Kansas, and we’ve looked at the difference between air quality inside homes compared to outside when it’s smoky to see if it is in general cleaner inside versus outside.
We are also working with communities in Fort Collins and Boulder on an EPA-funded project, where we are distributing PurpleAir monitors and trying to understand how to effectively communicate air quality to different populations. We’re working with science communication researchers to try to figure out what these communities need or what would be most helpful for them.
What air quality resources can we use to protect our health?
Along with checking AQI and real-time monitors, most cell phones now have air quality apps. On my Windows computer, weather information shows up in the corner by default, and when we had bad air quality here a few weeks ago from the same fires, there was a notification with the weather information. So, our technology is automatically pushing that information now.