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Consider air quality index, individual health to determine time spent outdoors

Air conditions were hazy Thursday morning at Chuck Lewis State Wildlife Area south of Steamboat Springs due to wildfires in the vicinity, particularly the Muddy Slide Fire in South Routt County. (Photo by Dylan Anderson)

Air quality across the area Wednesday morning wavered from warning level orange to unhealthy level red due to wildfire smoke, particularly from the Muddy Slide Fire in South Routt County. Because of this, health officials have advised local residents to pay attention and gauge their personal health conditions and tolerances to air pollution.

The general rule of thumb is the worse the air quality is then the shorter amount of time residents should spend outdoors, said Dr. Todd Bull, director of the Center for Lungs and Breathing at UCHealth Pulmonary Vascular Disease Clinic part of Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora.

As little as one hour of exposure can be enough to cause acute health problems for people with breathing and heart conditions, and for small children and elderly individuals, Bull said. Individual reactions to wildfire smoke can range from asthma patients using a rescue inhaler to patients visiting an emergency room, Bull said.



“It doesn’t take much exposure. If you have underlying respiratory disease, even a short exposure can result in significant worsening of breathing,” said Bull, who works in pulmonary disease and critical care medicine.

Air Quality Resources

Routt County Environmental Health Director Scott Cowman advises residents to review air quality resources at CO.Routt.CO.us/160/Air-Quality. Click on the Activity Guidelines for Wildfire link to view the chart and Recommendations for Outdoor Activities Based on Air Quality for Schools and Child Care Facilities for guidelines about outdoor recess, PE and athletic practices.

The PurpleAir monitor map for Routt County can be found at: Purpleair.com/map?opt=1/mAQI/a10/cC0#11/40.4856/-106.8318

Residents should keep track of current air quality during wildfire season and compare that with their level of lung function to determine what they can handle, Bull said



When air quality is at an unhealthy level, people with moderate asthma, for example, might want to stay indoors with the windows closed and an air purifier nearby, Bull said.

On Sunday, for the first time this year, the Air Pollution Control Division of the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment issued an air quality health advisory for Routt County due to the emergence of the Muddy Slide Fire.

Discussions on issuing an alert starts when air monitors reach the red level, which is when particulate less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter is present at a level of 150 parts per million, Routt County Environmental Health Director Scott Cowman said. At that level, fine particles can be inhaled deep into the smaller airways of the lungs, according to Bull.

According to the PurpleAir real-time air quality monitoring system, which includes eight monitors across Routt County, an air quality level of 151 to 200 signifies that everyone, regardless of health condition, may begin to experience health effects if exposed to air for 24 hours, and members of sensitive groups may experience more serious health effects.

Cowman said the county maintains PurpleAir monitors at four sites, including Soroco High School in Oak Creek, the Hayden wastewater treatment plant, North Routt Community Charter School and the Routt County Historic Courthouse in downtown Steamboat.

Though PurpleAir monitors are affordable, they “are not extremely precise but good for general information” to help guide local decisions, Cowman said. Before 2018, the county had no fine particle pollution monitors.

The environmental health director said he would also like to have more functioning monitors in Moffat and Jackson counties. The monitors require power and a WiFi connection.

Bull said higher quality monitoring across the state is available by viewing AirNow.gov. Those monitors also track ozone pollution and can be found across the Front Range and at locations such as Rangely, Rifle, Aspen, Paonia, Grand Junction and Rocky Mountain National Park.

“When we have a fire that is local, the conditions can change quickly depending on wind direction,” Cowman said. “It seems to be the new normal that we have these periods of poor air quality.”


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