Air quality specialist wants Missoula to be ‘smoke-ready’

During the summer of 2017, Missoula County recorded its highest-ever concentrations of air pollution caused by wildfires. (Dave Stalling/Missoula Current)

Concerns about wildfire smoke go far beyond irritated eyes and scratchy throats.

Organic compounds and fine particulate matter in smoke can stimulate lung inflammation, transmit harmful chemicals into the bloodstream, cause inflammation of fatty tissue and cause vascular dysfunction that can lead to asthma attacks, stroke, heart attacks and even death.

The elderly, pregnant women, children with underdeveloped lungs, and people with chronic health problems such as bronchitis and cardiovascular disease are most at risk. But the risks can be greatly reduced with proper planning and preparation.

That was the topic of a presentation by air quality specialist Sarah Coefield, of the Missoula City-County Health Department, during a Wednesday morning meeting of the Missoula City Council’s Public Safety and Health Committee.

Titled “Mitigation Measures in Missoula County: A Look at Smoke-Readiness,” Coefield gave the presentation to update the City Council on her ongoing efforts.  

Wildfires, and the associated wildfire smoke, have been increasing in western Montana.  When wildfire smoke fills the skies, the Health Department evaluates the air quality, forecasts smoke behavior, and recommends steps people can and should take to protect themselves and their families.

When smoke gets heavy, experts recommend that people avoid outside exercise and stay indoors.  However, indoor air can be as polluted as outdoor air if no actions are taken to clear the smoke.  

“There will be fire smoke,” Coefield said. “We want people to be informed and ready.”

How does she define a smoke-ready community?

“It’s a community in which public buildings have filtration for smoke,” she says. “It’s also a community whose residents understand the health risks associated with smoke exposure, have access to tools to protect themselves, and have the resources on hand to help vulnerable and under-served residents.”

To accomplish that, Coefield is conducting community educational outreach, accessing the needs of the community, providing assistance to enhance air quality in privately and publicly owned public spaces, and making available resources such as Portable Air Cleaners that can be used in facilities such as daycares and schools.

Coefield talked about a measurement scale for rating the efficiency of air filters known as “MERV,” which stands for Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value. The scale denotes a filter’s effectiveness at removing dangerous particles, with 1 being the lowest value and 20 being the highest.

A filter with a MERV rating of 1 to 4, for example, can filter out things such as pollen, sanding dust, spray paint dust, textile fibers and carpet fibers, and is commonly used in residential air-conditioners. A filter with a MERV rating of 16 to 20 can filter out viruses and carbon dust, and is commonly used in electronics and  pharmaceutical manufacturing.

The current commercial standard in Montana is 8, used in businesses and workspaces, and can filter out things such as mold spores, cat and dog dander, hair spray, fabric protector and dusting aids. Coefield said the city and county’s goal is upgrade filters in schools to a MERV rating of 13-plus, used in hospitals and surgery rooms, which can filter bacteria, most smoke and insecticide dust, most paint pigments and is best for smoke removal.

“There’s a lot of people who have health issues and concerns that can be exacerbated by smoke,” Coefield said. “We want to help people understand the issues and be better prepared.”

For more information about air quality issues in Missoula County, click here: https://www.missoulacounty.us/government/health/health-department/home-environment/air-quality

ClimateSmart Missoula also provides good information about the risks of wildlfire smokes and ways to minimize risks :  https://www.montanawildfiresmoke.org .