An analysis of air quality monitors across Colorado shows the Canada smoke last week brought the Centennial State the worst air quality days of the year so far in terms of particulate matter pollution. With potentially more smoky days on the horizon, CBS News Colorado spoke with a pulmonologist about ways you can stay safe this summer.
Fine particulate matter is so small, it's thinner than a strand of hair, and can get deep into the lungs and cause serious health problems.
Environmental Protection Agency air quality monitoring data shows all of the air quality monitors across the state measured the highest amount of fine particulate matter pollution, called PM 2.5, last week of any other time this year so far.
The EPA's daily mean standard for healthy air is 35 micrograms per cubic meter of PM 2.5. Last week, a monitor in Longmont recorded 98.2, a monitor at National Jewish Health in Denver recorded 95.6, the monitor at Chatfield State Park measured 92.7, and a monitor in north Denver recorded 92.4.
Dr. Tony Gerber, a pulmonologist with National Jewish Health, says he has been seeing patients who said the smoke caused their asthma and lung diseases to worsen.
"We've definitely seen patients coming in who are noticing that their symptoms are worse, and sometimes to the point where they need additional interventions, and new medications," Gerber said. "I expect that if you looked across the city, you'd find that there was a spike in emergency and urgent care visits related to respiratory complaints, and an association with that pollution."
While Gerber says the smoke is most harmful to people with preexisting conditions, studies have shown that increased exposure to PM 2.5 pollution can cause health problems for anyone.
"If you look at epidemiology studies, you will see an increase in the number of people having strokes and heart attacks, as well, so that's well established," Gerber said. "Unfortunately, we know that if you're exposed to high levels of particulates for months, that can have permanent effects on you on your lung health."
So, as we embark on wildfire season, what can we do to stay healthy?
Gerber says he encourages people with preexisting conditions, younger children, and older people to consider avoiding outdoor activity. He advises that if you choose to stay inside, it's important to make sure your indoor air quality is clean.
"Cooking a lot, burning a lot of meat inside, can definitely generate those particulates, and if the air quality is bad outside, you can't open your window, you can create risk indoors as well, with pollution from cooking, candle burning, using tobacco products," Gerber said. "It is something to be mindful of."
Gerber also advises to change your air filter frequently, and consider purchasing a HEPA air purifier if you're concerned about your indoor air quality.
If you choose to walk outside during smoky days, Gerber says you can wear an N-95 mask to filter out fine particulate matter pollution.
Finally, for the long-term, Gerber points to more eco-friendly solutions.
"These wildfires are really a consequence of climate change, and so we can't create a short-term fix, you can't, you know, tell the forest not to burn," Gerber said. "But in the long term, if we can control climate change, maybe we can hope for the future."
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