Living with smoke: With more severe wildfire seasons, air quality reports now checked as much as weather

Suzie Romig
Steamboat Pilot & Today
Steamboat Pilot & Today Sports Editor Shelby Reardon headed out to the Emerald Mountain Epic on Saturday morning and captured quite a sight: a nearly obscured view of Steamboat Springs and Mount Werner due to smoke blowing in from massive wildfires along the nation's West Coast. (Photo by Shelby Reardon)

With increasingly longer and more intense wildfire seasons in the western U.S., checking the day’s air quality conditions could become as common as checking the weather report.

“PM 2.5 matters,” said Dr. Jeff Sippel, a pulmonologist with the UCHealth Comprehensive Lung and Breathing Program in Aurora. “We know that correlates pretty darn well with the number and severity of asthma attacks and COPD exacerbation.”

PM 2.5 is shorthand for fine particulate matter that is more dangerous to human health because the microscopic particles of air pollution can get deep into human lungs or even into the blood stream, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Colorado doctors say changes in exercise routines, activity choices, medical care and even home maintenance are increasingly necessary as annual wildfire seasons and smoke continues to worsen. According to a spokesman for the Air Pollution Control Division of the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment, the agency has issued 25 air quality health advisories for Routt County so far this year, and issued 28 in 2020, none in 2019 and nine in 2018.

People living in wildfire areas should track their health conditions and medications to keep their lungs and body in as good of condition as possible to be able to endure smoke when it arrives, Sippel said. Anyone with respiratory or lung issues should always heed the body’s warning signs of wheezing or tightness or rattling in the chest as the “big three” reasons to seek medical advice or attention. Sippel noted it may be advisable for asthma patients to proactively use rescue or preventative inhalers before sports or outdoor activities when smoke is hampering breathing.

Dr. Jeff Sippel, pulmonologist at UCHealth Comprehensive Lung and Breathing Program

“People need to know their thresholds,” Sippel said. “We all have lung reserve or capacity, but with people with COPD and asthma, the reserve capacity is much less.”

The pulmonologist said patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or smoking-related lung disease, are at higher risk from wildfire smoke and could cross a threshold where regular daily exposure to wildfire smoke lasting for weeks could cause permanent lung damage.

As one example of home maintenance needs, residents who use swamp coolers or air conditioners should change or clean filters once a month during times of smoke, Sippel said. Windows should be kept closed during heightened smoke or windy times that stir up fine particulate matter. Residents may need to obtain more fans to keep indoor air moving when homes are closed up during smoky summer afternoons and to investigate quality air filtering machines.

Organizers of outdoor sporting events, especially those such as triathlons or marathons that require heavy breathing, should implement proactive communication with participants about smoke conditions and always have sufficient local first aid support available during events, Sippel said.

“Make sure participants are aware of health risks so that they can manage their own health more effectively,” Sippel said.

Dr. Jason Sigmon, an otolaryngologist with UCHealth Ear, Nose and Throat Clinic in Steamboat Springs, has a very simple recommendation. If residents can smell wildfire smoke, they should exercise indoors instead of outside. When the eyes, nose or throat are irritated or burn, those bodily filters are indicating it is not healthy to exercise outdoors, Sigmon said, although not everyone may clearly experience these bodily warning symptoms.

Scratchy, burning symptoms means the nose and sinuses are overwhelmed by the amount of poor air quality, the ENT doctor said. Wildfire smoke this and last summer caused aggravation of chronic symptoms for the doctor’s existing ENT patients as well as increased the number of first-time ENT patients dealing with smoke complications.

“Patients who have chronic nasal and sinus problems who are managing them medically are having a hard time controlling their symptoms with the increased smoke in the environment,” Sigmon noted. His mantra to patients is, the only way to mitigate or control these wildfire smoke symptoms is avoidance.

Sippel said in an “ideal world” patients should not suffer from a greater level of long-term asthma after enduring a summer of wildfire smoke.

“If people manage asthma proactively and aggressively, they should not suffer permanent damage from forest fires,” Sippel explained.

Sippel advised people with underlying heart disease to watch their health closely during wildfire smoke due to concerns that poor air quality can contribute to chest pain, heart attacks and sudden cardiac death.

“For people with known heart disease, be in tune with symptoms,” Sippel advised. “We think of pulmonary, respiratory and breathing health, but air pollution has other effects, which do include the heart.”

The pulmonologist said enduring weeks of wildfire smoke may affect mental health issues such as anxiety and depression because people stay indoors more often with windows closed. Times of smoke and thus less robust breathing also can impact sleep quality and cause more fatigue.

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