081117 seeley smoke1 kw.jpg (copy)

A contract fire firefighter stands outside his truck in downtown Seeley Lake several weeks ago. Scientists are studying the effects hazardous smoke had on residents in and around Seeley Lake due to wildfires that raged in the area.

Montanans can be a stoic lot who hang tough in the face of adversity. But we need to start paying attention to the warnings we're getting about the dangers of breathing smoke from this summer's wildfires.

Smoke levels have reached hazardous in Seeley Lake more than 18 times in the past two weeks and increasingly are hitting hazardous or unhealthy levels in Missoula, Florence and Lolo, too.

Air quality expert Sarah Coefield doesn't mince words in her daily smoke updates: It's "really bad, you guys" and it can make even healthy people sick.

The health dangers from the smoke come in two forms: the tiny particles suspended in the smoke and the toxic stew of chemicals caused by burning.

“Ammonia is always present in wildfire smoke, but that’s something that wasn’t previously measured,” Vanessa Selimovic, a University of Montana graduate student, told Missoulian reporter Rob Chaney recently. “There’s acetic acid. There’s formaldehyde and methanol. And it’s hard to say what happens as those compounds age. We don’t know if it gets worse or better if it sits in a valley overnight.”

Selimovic has been helping to crunch piles of data revealing what’s in the plumes obscuring our sky this summer. What she and her colleagues are finding should get our attention — and should merit additional study, particularly focused on the health of firefighters who can't wear masks and breathing apparatus while battling blazes in the heat and in the rugged backcountry.

No additional study is needed to understand the harm that tiny particles in the smoke can do when inhaled even by healthy people.

Scientists have established that exposure to particles that are 2.5 micrometers or less can affect the lungs and heart, causing nonfatal heart attacks, irregular heartbeats, difficulty breathing and decreased lung function in healthy people, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Children and the elderly are even more susceptible to health damage from inhaling tiny particulates in the air.

Coefield, the air quality specialist with the Missoula City-County Health Department, said hourly pollution from tiny particulates on an average day measures between five and eight micrograms per cubic meter of air. When that rises to 250 micrograms per cubic meter of air in an hour, air quality is deemed hazardous.

The department has recorded readings as high as 950 micrograms — nearly four times the hazardous level — in Seeley Lake. That's why the department recommended that anyone who could leave the area do so.

The department doesn't have the power to mandate evacuations based on air quality; only the Missoula County Sheriff's Office could do that. But Montanans should heed the warnings and do what they can to protect themselves, their families and, especially, their ill or elderly neighbors. And they should do it now.

When the air in your city is hazardous, everyone should either leave town or stay inside as much as possible in a room with air that's been cleaned using a HEPA filter. Masks won't work because the particles are too small.

When the air is unhealthy, the health department advises that "people with heart or lung disease, smokers, children and the elderly should limit heavy or prolonged exertion and limit time spent outdoors."

The smoke is going to be with us for a while. But protecting yourself and your family from its toxic effects now can make sure that you don't suffer long-term health problems when the skies finally clear.

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