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Lincoln Co. gets failing grade for short-term air pollution

by DARRELL EHRLICK Daily Montanan
| May 19, 2023 7:00 AM

Montana may be the “Big Sky” state, but the air beneath that large expanse may not be so healthy.

In its 24th annual “State of the Air” report, the American Lung Association pointed out that the three-year average for air quality continues to deteriorate in Montana, largely due to pollution from forest fires, which sends particulates into the air and into the lungs.

“As fire season is happening, it’s starting earlier and happening for longer. Another factor is the intensity with which it is happening,” said Carrie Nyssen, senior director of advocacy for the American Lung Association.

Though Montana is not the only state to struggle with air pollution due largely to forest fires, Nyssen said the problem is getting worse as catastrophic fires cause more destruction.

Missoula was singled out in particular for its bad air, with the report noting the western Montana city ranked No. 15 for most polluted for short-term particles nationwide and No. 51 in cities for year-round pollution.

The number of high-particle days in Missoula more than doubled in the past year.

However, six of seven of Montana’s counties with urbanized areas also made the list, with only Cascade County and Great Falls avoiding being singled out. Meanwhile 11 counties, including Missoula County and the state’s largest, Yellowstone, received “F” letter grades for the short-term particle pollution.

Lincoln County also received an “F” grade for its annual particle pollution.

Most of the pollution detailed in this year’s report stems from small “particulate matter.” That is smoke and microscopic debris found suspended in the air from the fires.

That matter, often smaller than 1/30th the size of a human hair, can be breathed in, and causes irritation or reactions inside the lungs. However, some of the particulate matter can be so small, Nyssen said, that it can enter the bloodstream and cause numerous health problems, including cancer.

Nyssen recommends making sure residents pay attention to their local air quality index, which measures the air for particulate matter.

In the past, communities and states that relied on wood burning to heat homes and businesses were often singled out for similar problems with air quality, but that has largely changed as heating practices have changed. Now, the problem is brought by smoke, which sometimes comes from hundreds of miles away from Montana.

Nyssen also noted that other western states like Washington, Idaho, Oregon and Colorado all have similar challenges with air quality and particulates.

While forest fires, especially in other states or countries, can be hard to manage, Nyssen said one of the key areas indicates that more prescribed burning by agencies like the United States Forest Service can help mitigate “catastrophic” wildfires which will, in turn, reduce the amount of smoke being put off through these fires.

“That’s a tricky thing because prescribed burns can also cause smoke and irritation,” she said. “We have to look at forest health and other things that we can do to mitigate pollution like emissions from smokestacks and tailpipes.”

But Nyssen said once a fire begins sending smoke and toxins into the air, it’s nearly impossible to stop the consequences, so the strategy has to shift to prevention.

“The question is how to do that as safely as possible for those communities,” she said.

She also said that transitioning away from fossil fuels, which contribute to poor air quality, would also help.

“There’s not just one magic button,” Nyssen said. “But trying to get to zero emissions or a clean electricity grid would be good goals and incentives.”