Wildfire smoke has inundated communities across western Montana this summer and officials are worried about its impacts on human health, physical and otherwise.
Missoula City-County Air Quality Specialist Sarah Coefield understands the negative health impacts of air pollution better than most, but even she was startled by its impacts earlier this week.
"I went to the gym yesterday. It had filtered air and I got incredibly sick because I had been breathing scummy air. Just going into clean air doesn’t make you healthy and well," Coefield says.
Air pollution presents very real health threats – especially in the kind of high concentrations seen this summer in Seeley Lake and the Bitterroot Valley.
"People need to be really respectful of the fact that this is a cumulative pollutant. The longer you’re in it, the more it’s going to impact you. We know that there’ve been people in Seeley Lake who have been impacted by the smoke; it’s affecting their health and it’s going to affect the health of the people in the Bitterroot Valley and people in Missoula," says Coefield.
Prolonged exposure to wildfire smoke may even have negative impacts on our mental health.
"Well certainly – and the longer it drags on, the harder it is to get through it."
And that may be why Coefield’s daily air quality updates for the Missoula City-County Health Department are generously dosed with humor and a human, down-to-earth narrative.
"And just seeing it day after day, after day and not seeing relief in sight; it’s hard. People know that I try to get through it and sometimes the best way to get through it is with humor, but some days it’s harder than others," she says.
It looks like there will be many difficult days ahead. It could be weeks before we get the significant rain or even snow that it’s going to take to completely snuff out these wildfires.