Missoula gets an ‘F’ for particulate pollution in American Lung Association report

The Lolo Peak fire helped create unhealthy air quality in Lolo, Florence and Missoula after it was ignited by lightning last July 15. (inciweb.com)

Missoula and seven other counties in Montana received grades of “F” for particulate pollution in the American Lung Association’s 2018 State of the Air report, released Wednesday.

In fact, the city of Missoula was the nation’s 12thmost polluted for short-term particulate pollution, a ranking strongly influenced by smoke from summertime wildfires, wintertime inversions, and dust from street sanding and unpaved roads.

Ravalli, Flathead and Lincoln counties also received grades of “F” for particulate pollution, as did Lewis and Clark and Silver Bow counties. So too did Fergus and Phillips counties.

The report covers data collected by states, cities, counties, tribes and federal agencies from 2014 to 2016. It does not, however, include the exceptionally high particulate pollution levels recorded last August and September when Missoula city and county were overwhelmed by thick blankets of smoke from large wildfires.

On the brighter side, Montana had considerably lower levels of ozone pollution than did large metropolitan areas elsewhere in the nation. Missoula’s ozone level was among the lowest in the nation.

Each year, the American Lung Association releases a nationwide report card on the two most widespread outdoor air pollutants: ozone, along known as smog, and particulate pollution, sometimes called soot or smoke.

“The 2018 State of the Air report finds that unhealthful levels of pollution in Montana put residents at risk for premature death and other serious health effects, such as asthma attacks and greater difficulty breathing for those living with a lung disease like COPD,” said Ronni Flannery, director of the Heathy Air Campaign in Montana.

“Across the nation, the report found continued improvement in air quality, but still, more than four in 10 Americans – 133.9 million – live in counties that have unhealthful levels of either ozone or particle pollution, where their health is at risk,” she said.

As does the federal government, the lung association report analyzes particulate – what it calls “particle” – pollution two ways: through average annual pollution levels and as short-term spikes in airborne particulate.

As does ozone, particulate pollution is dangerous to public health and can increase the risk of serious health effects, including asthma attacks, lung cancer, cardiovascular damage, and developmental and reproductive damage.

Nationwide, the city of Missoula ranks as the 12thmost-polluted city for short-term particulate pollution and the 28thmost-polluted city for year-round particulate.

Over the years, Missoula city and county governments have taken many steps to reduce the valley’s particulate pollution levels – including prohibitions on fireplaces, short-term bans on wood burning during air inversions, tighter regulations governing street and parking lot paving, mandated street sweeping to bring down particulate levels, tighter regulations on industrial polluters, the required sale of oxygenated gasoline during inversion-prone winter months, and intense monitoring of air quality (and subsequent reports to the public) when wildfires erupt near or in the Missoula Valley.

Last summer’s monitoring yielded levels of particulate pollution considered so unhealthy that residents of some communities – including Seeley Lake and Lolo – were encouraged by the City-County Health Department to leave the area until the air quality improved.

Again, though, particulate pollution readings from the wildfire siege were not included in the 2018 State of the Air.

Wednesday’s report from the American Lung Association also showed Ravalli County as the nation’s 9thmost-polluted for short-term particulate (again, a reflection of dense summertime wildfire smoke), Lincoln County (17th) and Lewis and Clark (19th).

The trends reported in this year’s report include data collected by states, cities, counties, tribes and federal agencies in 2014-2016.

Flannery said the trends reported in this year’s report reflect the ongoing challenges to reduce both ozone and particulate pollution levels, given the nation’s changing political and outdoor climates.

Here are the grades worthy of note for Montana communities:

Ozone: No unhealthy ozone days were recorded in Montana and all counties evaluated received an A.

Particle Pollution (year-round). All Montana counties evaluated received a passing grade.

Particle Pollution (short-term). The report provided the following grades to Montana counties for short-term particle pollution levels:

Fergus                         F

Flathead                      F

Lewis and Clark          F

Lincoln                         F

Missoula                      F

Phillips                         F

Powder River              D

Ravalli                         F

Richland                      D

Rosebud                      C

Silver Bow                   F

“We can and should do more to protect our public health from the harms of air pollution,” Flannery said.  “The Lung Association urges Congress to defend and strengthen the Clean Air Act.”

Flannery said the Clean Air Act has seen multiple threats to weaken its provisions, particularly in the past year.

In Wednesday’s report, the lung association also called on the Environmental Protection Agency to implement and enforce current laws instead of repealing safeguards like the Clean Power Plan and cleaner cars.

“The results serve as a strong reminder that addressing climate change and its impacts on our air quality are key to the fight for healthy air,” Flannery said. “Climate change is known to cause increased heat, changes in weather patterns, drought and wildfires, which contributed to the extraordinarily high numbers of days with unhealthy particle pollution in many parts of Montana. Many of these spikes were directly linked to wildfire events, which are likely to increase because of climate change.”

For more information about Montana’s local air quality data and grades for each county and metropolitan area, visit www.stateoftheair.org.

State of the Air 2018 Rankings

Most-Polluted Cities for Short-Term Particle Pollution

  1. Bakersfield, CA
  2. Visalia-Porterfield, CA
  3. Fresno-Madera, CA
  4. Fairbanks, AK
  5. Modesto-Madera, CA
  6. San Jose-San Francisco, CA
  7. Los Angeles, CA
  8. Salt Lake City, UT
  9. El Centro, CA
  10. Pittsburgh, PA
  11. Logan, UT
  12. Missoula, MT
  13. Lancaster, PA
  14. Anchorage, AK
  15. Seattle-Tacoma, WA