Wildfire smoke impacts result in significantly lower air quality grades for Montana counties, according to ‘State of the Air’ 2017 report

Editor’s Note: Trend Charts and rankings for metropolitan areas, county grades are available at Lung.org/sota

 

The American Lung Association’s 2017 “State of the Air” report found continued overall improvement in the nation’s air quality in 2013-2015 in ozone and year-round particle pollution, but an unrelenting increase in dangerous spikes in particle pollution, including across Montana. These trends demonstrate the continued need to support and enforce the Clean Air Act and take action to reduce carbon pollution to protect citizens from unhealthy air.

Of the eleven Montana counties evaluated for short-term particle pollution, eight received an F, two received a D, and one received a C.

“The 2017 report adds to the evidence that a changing climate is making it harder to protect human health,” said Ronni Flannery of the American Lung Association in Montana. “Warmer temperatures, wildfires and drought, along with stagnant weather patterns, concentrated pollution in many parts of the West, and contributed to the dramatic results in Montana.”

“State of the Air” 2017 is the Lung Association’s 18th annual, national air quality “report card.” The Lung Association takes complex information about air pollution and translates it into a simpler, easier to understand “report card” to help people better protect themselves and their families. The 2017 report uses the most recent quality-assured air pollution data, collected by the federal, state and local governments and tribes in 2013, 2014 and 2015.These data come from the official monitors for the two most widespread types of pollution, ozone (also known as smog) and particle pollution (fine particulate matter, PM 2.5, also known as soot). The report grades counties and ranks cities and counties based on their scores for ozone using one measure (weighted average number of unhealthy days) and for particle pollution using two measures: year-round (annual average) and short-term (weighted average number of unhealthy days).

 

The grades:

Ozone. No unhealthy ozone days were recorded in Montana and all counties evaluated received an A.

Particle Pollution (year-round): All Montana counties evaluated received a passing grade.

Particle Pollution (short-term): The report provided the following grades to Montana counties for short-term particle pollution levels:

Fergus F

Flathead F

Lewis and Clark F

Lincoln F

Missoula F

Phillips F

Powder River D

Ravalli F

Richland D

Rosebud C

Silver Bow F

 

Particle pollution

Particle pollution is made of soot or tiny particles that come from coal-fired power plants, diesel engines, wildfires and wood-burning devices. These particles are so small that they can lodge deep in the lungs and trigger asthma attacks, heart attacks and strokes. They can even cause lung cancer, and early death.

Across the country, year-round particle pollution levels have dropped, thanks to the cleanup of coal-fired power plants and the retirement of old, dirty diesel engines.

Not so for short-term spikes of particle pollution. Short-term particle spikes can be extremely dangerous and even lethal. According to the 2017 report, more Montana counties had more days when short-term particle pollution has reached unhealthy levels in 2013-2015. This is in keeping with the national trend of increased short-term spikes in particle pollution in many locations in the Western United States.

Montana’s low grades in this year’s report highlight the burden of concentrated smoke from wildfires and wood-burning devices, with wildfire smoke being the main contributor. It has been well documented that the primary source of fine particle pollution during the summer and fall seasons is in fact smoke from wildfires.

“For those Counties receiving an “F” for fine particle pollution, the majority of poor air quality days can be directly attributed to smoke from wildfires. To be more specific, 56 percent of those poor air quality days in Butte-Silver Bow are attributed to wildfire impacts and the percentage is even greater in Lewis and Clark County at 76 percent, Ravalli County at 68 percent, and Missoula County at 83 percent,” explained Stephen Coe, a senior air quality engineer for the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.

Climate change is known to cause increased heat, changes in weather patterns, drought and wildfires, which contributed to the extraordinarily high numbers of days with unhealthy particle pollution in many parts of Montana. Many of these spikes were directly linked to wildfire events, which are likely to increase because of climate change.

As climate change continues, cleaning up air pollutants will become ever more challenging. Climate change poses many threats to human health, including worsened air quality and extreme weather events. The nation, and Montana, must continue to reduce emissions that worsen climate.

“State of the Air” 2017 shows that the Clean Air Act has worked to clean up pollution across the nation. This law has driven improvements in air quality for 47 years, improvements that the “State of the Air” 2017 continues to document. The air is cleaner, but not clean enough to protect people from increased risks of premature death, asthma attacks and lung cancer that research shows comes from breathing these pollutants. 

But healthy air protections are under attack, and must be defended to save lives here and across the country.

“Air travels from one state to another, so federal protections are essential to protect the air we all breathe,” said Flannery. “The Lung Association in Montana calls on President Trump, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and members of Congress to fully fund, implement and enforce the Clean Air Act for all air pollutants – including those that drive climate change and make it harder to ensure healthy air for all Americans.”

For many years the Montana Department of Environmental Quality has taken an active role in providing the public with air quality information by publishing near real-time fine particle pollution concentrations on the Today’s Air website attodaysair.mt.gov. The existing Today’s Air website is now mobile-friendly, providing the public with even easier access to hourly fine particle pollution data with the potential for other pollutants in the future.

Learn more about air quality rankings across Montana and the nation in the 2017 “State of the Air” report at Lung.org/sota. For media interested in speaking with an expert about lung health and healthy air, contact the American Lung Association in Montana at ronni.flannery@lung.org or (406) 214-5700.

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