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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane’s air quality: You’ve got questions, we’ve got answers

Abraham Lincoln's statue wears a face mask after Mount St. Helen's erupted in 1980.

The hazy days of August have become yet another season in Spokane. That time of year when the skyline is sepia-toned, when you wonder if that run is worth the hacking cough, or if the siren call of the lake is stronger than your desire to check the current air quality website every hour.

Considering three of the last four summers have been dampened by a blanket of smoke, we should all be experts on what AQI means, what type of smoke is worse for you and if our pets are better breathers than we are.

If you’re not, here’s a tip sheet.

Has it ever been this bad?

No. Sunday was the worst day recorded by local air monitors. At least since 1999, when modern air-quality measuring began.

Stephanie May, a spokeswoman with the Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency, said the days following the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980 were likely worse in terms of air quality, but it’s impossible to know.

Back then, sensors measured the total amount of suspended particulates. Today, sensors are much more precise and measure for microscopic particles smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter. A human hair, by comparison, is about 60 microns in diameter.

So it’s never been worse here, but we still have it better than everyone else, right?

Wrong. Spokane had the worst air quality in the nation Monday morning, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Registering 382 on the Air Quality Index, we had it bad. But it was worse beyond our borders.

In the Japanese town of Kanabara Shinden, in the Shizuoka prefecture, an air sensor registered 766 on the Air Quality Index Monday, according to In Aguascalientes, a city in central Mexico, a sensor logged 500 on the AQI.

As for the cities that have notoriously bad air, they didn’t hold a candle to Spokane in recent days. As of Monday afternoon, Beijing’s sensors reported very healthy air, with an AQI of 44.

What’s AQI?

The Air Quality Index, or AQI, is a measuring stick that runs from 0 to 500, giving people a snapshot of how good or bad their air is. A reading below 50 means the air is fine for everyone. Above 300 means it’s hazardous for everyone. Readings above 500 are possible and are called “off index.”

The AQI was developed by the Environmental Protection Agency and measures ground-level ozone, particle pollution, carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide.

Is it true that if I can’t smell smoke, the air’s fine?

No. The forest fires in Canada to blame for Spokane’s current poor air quality do make the air smell like smoke, which is a sure sign we shouldn’t be inhaling it.

But even if you can’t smell it, it still may be hazardous.

Wood smoke not only creates small particles than can infiltrate the bloodstream, making it particularly egregious, but also contains odorless gases like carbon monoxide, ozone and formaldehyde, said Dr. Bob Lutz, health officer of the Spokane Regional Health District. Given the industrial history of the Pacific Northwest, it may also contain heavy metals, the leavings of smelting.

“You can imagine what that toxic soup does to your lungs,” Lutz said.

Is it worse than smoking cigarettes?

It’s all bad. Avoid it all.

That said, there’s a new smartphone app with a name that can’t be printed in these family-friendly pages that converts air quality into an equivalent number of cigarettes.

On Monday, the app said breathing Spokane’s air was equal to smoking more than 13 cigarettes.

What does the poor air quality do to my lungs?

Nothing good.

Short-term effects include coughing, sneezing, watery eyes and other symptoms similar to a common cold.

In the long term, such bad air can exacerbate chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or heart issues.

Lutz said people who may be sensitive to the smoke should be more careful. Kids, older people and pregnant women should seek professional help if they feel tightness in the chest or shortness of breath.

More concerning is the cumulative effect of being exposed to the degraded air. Firefighters with chronic exposure have shown increased rates of cardiovascular disease, increased risk of heart attacks, dysrhythmia and some types of cancers.

“When it comes to airborne pollutants, wood-fire smoke is small and causes chronic inflammation,” he said. “If you’re chronically exposed to it, it adds up.”

Should I wear a face mask?

Sure, every little bit helps.

Health officials recommend N95 and N100 respirators, fitted by an occupational medical professional, as the surest way to get protection. But even these can’t protect against everything.

“Nothing is going to be perfect. Nothing’s going to prevent everything,” said May, with the clean air agency. “Sometimes it’s that mental aspect. You’re doing something to help yourself. And they do provide some protection.”

Lutz had a few other tips.

“If you have a beard, forget it,” he said. “ And those paper masks you can buy at places like Home Depot, forget about it. They’re not going to do anything.”

Is my home safe?

Officials recommend using HEPA air purifiers to minimize the amount of dangerous air that may be in your home. Make sure it’s recirculating the air inside, and not drawing new air in from the outdoors.

At the very least, keep doors and windows shut to prevent smoke from entering the home.

Researchers at the University of Michigan have put out instructions for a do-it-yourself air filter that the local clean air agency has endorsed. Basically, you start with a 20-inch by 20-inch box fan, which costs about $12. Tape a 20-inch by 20-inch by 1-inch furnace filter, which costs about $15, to its face and crank it up. Make sure the air is blowing through the filter to clean the air.

Can I let my pets outside?

Try not to.

“If it is at all possible for you to keep your pets inside, keep them inside,” said Pia Hallenberg, a spokeswoman with the Spokane Humane Society.

Hallenberg said larger animals like horses can be more difficult to keep safe, because “barns aren’t necessarily air-proof.” But common house pets should be treated like you’d treat yourself or your children.

“Just use common sense. If it’s hard for you to breath outside, it’s hard for your pets,” she said, adding that an outdoor jaunt every now and again is just fine. “You can take your dog for a little walk.”

Will the air be like this every summer?

There’s a good chance of it, yes.

With wildfires in the West increasing in frequency and duration over the last 30 years, summers like this are predicted to become more common.

In a study published in 2016 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, John Abatzoglou, a climate scientist at the University of Idaho, and Columbia University bioclimatologist Park Williams concluded that there will come a point when there’s not much left to burn, but that’s decades off. Until then, the fires will be much larger and more destructive than any we’re seeing today.

“Going forward in the next three to four decades … I expect fires to continue to become unrecognizable to previous generations,” Williams told the Washington Post last October. “In the 2030s, it is a very high likelihood that fires (will be) dwarfing the fires that we see today.”

The two climate scientists aren’t alone. The Union of Concerned Scientists warned recently that wildfires will be “more intense and long-burning.”

“The costs of wildfires, in terms of risks to human life and health, property damage, and state and federal dollars, are devastating, and they are only likely to increase unless we better address the risks of wildfires and reduce our activities that lead to further climate change,” the group wrote in an article on its website.

The U.S. Forest Service gives a similar warning, noting that “climate warming associated with elevated greenhouse-gas concentrations may create an atmospheric and fuel environment that is more conducive to large, severe fires.”

Is Spokane in danger of burning down, like the Great Fire of 1889?

Probably not.

Larry Cebula, a professor of public and digital history at Eastern Washington University, acknowledged that his doctorate in history made him “really poorly qualified to answer” this question, but he tried anyway.

In 1889, Spokane was a small town made largely of wood.

“We had wooden sidewalks leading into brick and wooden buildings, and even the brick buildings were wood inside,” he said.

In other words, everything was ready to burn, and that doesn’t even get to the strides in fire protection the city, and the nation, has made in the intervening years, such as building a professional fire department and requiring home fire insurance.

Also, Spokane burned during a time when nearly every American city burned down, suggesting our cities just weren’t built to be fireproof back then.

There was the Great Fire of New York, followed by the Second Great Fire of New York. There were the first and second Great New Orleans Fires, the San Francisco Fire of 1851, the St. Louis Fire, the Great Chicago Fire, the Great Seattle Fire and the Great Bakersfield Fire of 1889 – not to be confused with the Great Spokane Fire of 1889.

“In the great age of city fires, they all burned. Every damn one of them had a fire at some point,” he said. “That’s largely over. You don’t hear about great urban fires anymore.”

Cebula, though, pointed to the recent threats fires have posed to California cities, like Santa Rosa in 2017 when 5,634 structures burned, and the Carr Fire this month that burned homes in Redding.

“I don’t see where the fire would go” in Spokane, he said. “But you never know.”

Spokane Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer said he was sure Spokane was safe.

“The city of Spokane is certainly at a higher risk, as is all of Eastern Washington,” he said. “But we’re confident of the resources and the people that we have to meet the risk.”