2017 Missoula smoke

Smoke from surrounding wildfires lingers in the Missoula Valley in 2017.

The Missoula area has been named the 11th most-polluted city in the United States for annual particle pollution, and the fifth-most polluted for short-term air quality, according to a report from the American Lung Association.

The organization’s annual State of the Air “report card” tracks exposure to particle pollution, both on a yearly basis and when it spikes during wildfires.

Missoula County had its most short-term particle pollution days ever recorded between 2015 and 2017, with a weighted average of 16.5 days. That’s more than twice the number of days recorded between 2014 and 2016.

Many of these spikes were directly linked to events like wildfires, which are increasing in frequency and intensity in many areas due to climate change, according to Carrie Nyssen, senior director for advocacy for the American Lung Association in Montana.

“Missoula residents should know that we’re breathing unhealthy air, driven by wildfires as a result of climate change, placing our health and lives at risk,” said Nyssen in a statement. “Across the state, many areas have seen their air quality worsen dramatically. We have to do more to protect people’s lives and public health.”

The summer of 2017 saw large wildfires all around Missoula, which filled the valley with dense smoke for weeks.

This year, Montana is home to six of the 25 counties in the United States most polluted by short-term particle pollution. Ravalli County is the third most-polluted county. Lewis and Clark County and Missoula County rank seventh and ninth respectively, when factoring in the entire county and not just the urban area of Missoula. Lincoln, Silver Bow and Flathead County are 14th, 18th and 23rd respectively, all worse than last year’s report.

Each year the “State of the Air” analyzes the two most widespread outdoor air pollutants: ozone pollution, also known as smog, and particle pollution, also called soot. The report analyzes particle pollution in two ways: through average annual particle pollution levels and short-term spikes in particle pollution. Both ozone and particle pollution are “dangerous to public health and can increase the risk of premature death and other serious health effects such as lung cancer, asthma attacks, cardiovascular damage, and developmental and reproductive harm,” according to the ALA.

“Particle pollution is made of soot or tiny particles that come from coal-fired power plants, diesel emissions, wildfires and wood-burning devices,” Nyssen said. “These particles are so small that they can lodge deep in the lungs and trigger asthma attacks, heart attacks and strokes, and can even be lethal. The American Lung Association calls for the Administration and Congress to adopt science-based solutions to reduce emissions that are causing climate change and to ensure that no community near a polluting source gets left behind. Action taken now can help prevent the worst impacts of climate change.”

Conversely, Missoula had no unhealthy ozone days, and ranked among the cleanest cities for ozone in the nation, as it has for each year data has been available. Ozone levels increased in most cities nationwide, in large part due to the record-breaking global heat experienced in the three years tracked in the report.

Fresno, California, had the worst air quality in the nation when looking at all three factors.

Paul Smith, the director of pediatric pulmonology at Community Medical Center, said climate change is undoubtedly causing wildfires in western Montana to burn more acres, last longer and produce more smoke. That means children’s lungs, which are more vulnerable than those of adults, suffer the most.

“So when we talk about the balance of decisions we’re making for one consumption or the other, we really have to balance it over the externalized costs of those health care costs that are taking place to children,” he explained. “And those are never taken into the equation. So if you look at the decades of suffering, the years of life lost in children because of our decisions we make now, you never see that figured into the cost of cheap energy or the cost of fossil fuels consumption or our own society’s consumption.”

The 2017 Montana Climate Assessment found that human-caused climate change will cause precipitation in the state to decrease during the summer months by the middle of this century while increasing average temperatures and hampering the ability of forests to rebound from fire.

Montana regulators recently gave final approval to a 70 million-ton expansion of a southeastern Montana coal mine that supplies fuel for the coal-fired Colstrip power generating station, one of the largest in the western U.S.

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