Air quality hazard remains moderate in Garfield County
July 11, 2018
The Garfield County Public Health Department says there are certain safety precautions one can take to prevent the harmful effects of wildfire smoke. Wildfires are burning throughout the state and all across the west, and officials say it's important to know what resources are available and how and fires can affect the human body.
Symptoms from wildfire smoke can include coughing, trouble breathing, headaches, stinging eyes, and a scratchy throat, said Morgan Hill, environmental health specialist at Garfield County Public Health.
Mental health effects include changes in sleep patterns, lack of energy, helplessness, and irritability.
Symptoms become more acute as a person is more frequently exposed to wildfire smoke and for a longer period of time, she said, which could cause chronic respiratory conditions. People in more urban areas generally experience these kinds of issues more frequently, as pollution is more of a concern.
Hill says it's important to note that if a person were to notice impacts from a fire, it would likely come before the smoke had cleared, while there was heavier smoke in the atmosphere. Those affected by the Lake Christine Fire burning above Basalt, for example, probably noticed just hours or days after the fire had started.
"If you see regional haze or some visible haze like we saw in Glenwood Springs or Carbondale, it doesn't mean it's unhealthy or hazardous," she said. The county health department tracks conditions during wildfires and says conditions usually remain moderate. This was the case even when smoke was at its heaviest during the Lake Christine Fire, she said.
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Only sensitive populations should be concerned in a moderate zone. That includes people with respiratory issues, pregnant women, children under five, and people over 65, she said, "and that's why we really try to tell people to observe for yourself, both the visibility of smoke as well as your own health response," Hill said.
One can use the five-mile visibility index, a visual precaution that would warn of hazardous conditions, she said.
"If you can't see more than five miles away, the air at that point can become unhealthy, and that's where they should take precautions," she said of the public. For example, if you live in Glenwood and you can see Mt. Sopris, the air is not hazardous, Hill explained
If a person thinks they're experiencing the effects of wildfire smoke, the department of public health recommends staying inside, limiting activities, and keeping air clean.
She recommended closing windows and doors and using central air or a HEPA filter, if possible, and refraining from using incense, a vacuum, or cooking, which all produce smoke.
"What we also tell people is if you aren't able to achieve a cool environment, to identify a clean air space in the community, museum, rec center, or shopping center," Hill said.
For those who have respiratory conditions or must work outside, masks can be used as a last resort. An N95 mask can be effective at filtering most of the particulate matter from fires, which is what causes health concerns. However, the mask needs to be properly fitted so there are no gaps.
She encourages people to reach out to others "both for your own mental health" and to make sure others are safe and healthy and have what they need.
Garfield County operates three air monitoring sites, which the public can use to stay informed. Garco911.org sends out air quality alerts when air quality reaches an unhealthy level.
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