Montana Air Quality Concerns Connected to Wildfires and Climate Change; Raises Importance of Strong State Carbon Pollution Reduction Plan, Shows American Lung Association's 2015 'State of the Air' Report
(April 30, 2015) -
The American Lung Association’s “State of the Air 2015” report released today shows that while Montana’s big skies remain clear of harmful ground-level ozone, particle pollution remains a public health concern in several parts of the state. While efforts of state and local governments have resulted in progress over the years, much of the state faces new challenges, with hotter and drier summers resulting in more frequent and more intense forest fires. More accessible air quality information and promising plans to reduce carbon pollution are two approaches for addressing this air quality threat. More needs to be done to get Montana’s air quality on par with national trends and protect public health from the damaging effects of climate change on the air we breathe.
Missoula is a city of concern in the 2015 report, which analyzes data collected from 2011-2013. Missoula’s metro area had worse year-round particle pollution this year- which differs from downward trends in most of the rest of the nation- though the increase was slight: 10.9 µg/m3 in 2015 versus last year’s 10.8 µg/m3, which still meets the national air quality standards. The area slightly reduced its average number of unhealthy short-term particle pollution days, yet still received an “F” grade and is ranked 11th most polluted region in the nation for short-term particle pollution.
Ravalli County also earned an “F” grade in the short-term particle pollution category and is tied for 9th most polluted county in the nation, remaining unchanged in the number of days reporting unhealthy particles from the 2014 report. Silver Bow County, though still earning an “F,” improved its measures of short-term particle pollution, reducing to 9.0 days of unhealthy particles this year from 10.5 days last year. It ranks as 23rd most polluted county nationwide for short-term particle pollution. Similarly, Lewis and Clark County again earned an “F” for short-term particle pollution, but saw a decrease in the number of unhealthy particle days, from 8.7 in the 2014 report to 3.5 in the current report.
After years of consistently earning an “A” for short-term particle pollution days, Flathead County’s grade dropped to a “C” in the current report. The report provided the following grades to counties for 24-hour particle pollution levels:
Lewis and Clark F
Powder River A
Silver Bow F
Reports on ozone pollution levels were positive across the state: Missoula reported no unhealthy ozone days in 2011-2013, ranking as one of the cleanest cities in the nation for this measure. Flathead, Lewis and Clark, Powder River, Richland and Rosebud also reported zero unhealthy ozone days. Additionally, Richland and Powder River also had no recorded days of unhealthy levels of short-term particle pollution, the only areas in the state with complete data collected that can make this claim.
For too many Montana families, however, the stakes of living with particle pollution are particularly high. “We have relocated from areas with too much particle pollution due to our young daughter’s lung condition,” said Kat Quinn of Red Lodge, Montana. “It wasn’t that the smoke-filled days were inconvenient or annoying, they were harmful to our daughter’s health, causing her condition to worsen and impacting our quality of life.”
Particle pollution is made up of microscopic specks of soot, metals, acids, dirt, pollen, molds, and aerosols that are tiny enough to inhale. Particle pollution levels can spike dangerously for hours to weeks on end (short-term) or remain at unhealthy levels on average every day (year-round). Particles penetrate deep into the lungs and even into the bloodstream where they can lead to premature deaths, asthma attacks and heart attacks, as well as lung cancer.
The American Lung Association is especially concerned about the effects of air pollution on the health of vulnerable populations, including children and the elderly. “Unhealthy days of particle pollution continue to be a struggle for our communities, especially for our children, our seniors, and those with lung disease, like asthma or COPD,” said Ronni Flannery, Healthy Air Director for the American Lung Association in Montana. “Reducing pollution will become more challenging as warmer temperatures increase the risk for ozone and particle pollution, and make cleaning up the air harder in the future.”
In Montana it has been well documented that the primary source of particle pollution during the summer and fall seasons is in fact smoke from wildfires. “For those Counties receiving an “F” for short term particle pollution, the vast majority of poor air quality days can be directly attributed to smoke from wildfires. To be more specific, 56% 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 75%, Ravalli County at 93%, and Missoula County at 86%,” explained Stephen Coe, a Senior Air Quality Engineer for the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.
Climate change plays a significant role when it comes to Montana air quality. “With wildfire smoke being one of Montana’s biggest air pollution issues, we must recognize that climate change will make the situation worse as it has caused, and will continue to cause, longer fire seasons and more wildfires,” cautioned University of Montana climate scientist Dr. Steven Running. “The biggest contribution Montanans can make to mitigating the climate change problem is to end burning and selling coal, the single largest greenhouse gas emission source on Earth.”
The State has acknowledged this threat to Montana’s air quality and is developing approaches for meeting the carbon pollution standards for existing power plants proposed by the U.S. EPA last June. “We strongly encourage the state to develop a strong, state-driven plan that best serves Montana and best protects public health,” said Flannery.
“The State of the Air report card shows us our successes and areas of opportunity,” emphasized Dr. Robert Merchant, Billings pulmonologist and board member of the American Lung Association of the Mountain Pacific. “What is riding on this is not just advancing to the next year in school, or college acceptance. Our health and our lives are riding on these grades. Poor air quality in the failing areas disproportionately affects especially vulnerable populations including children, pregnant women, and people with heart and lung disease. For our children's sake, let's figure out how to get straight As.”
Each year, “State of the Air” analyzes data gathered on particle pollution (both 24-hour and annual) and ozone. Nationwide, more than 4 in 10 Americans – nearly 138.5 million people – live in counties where ozone or particle pollution levels make the air unhealthy to breathe, according to “State of the Air 2015.” The 16th annual national report card, which looks at air pollution data collected from 2011-2013, shows that improvement in the nation’s air quality was mixed, with many cities experiencing strong improvements, while others suffered increased episodes of unhealthy air, and a few even marked their worst number of unhealthy days. With the risks of particle pollution so great, the American Lung Association seeks to inform people who may be in danger.
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 particle pollution concentrations on the Today’s Air website at todaysair.mt.gov. The existing Today’s Air website is now mobile-friendly, providing the public with even easier access to hourly particle pollution data with the potential for other pollutants in the future.
“We know that the Clean Air Act and state and local regulatory controls and strategies work because we’ve seen Montana’s air quality improve over the past 16 years and seen the health benefits that have come with cleaning up the air,” added Flannery. “EPA must move forward to fully implement the Clean Air Act for all pollutants that threaten public health, including finalizing a strong Clean Power Plan to limit carbon pollution from power plants and stronger ozone air quality standards. Congress must also ensure that the provisions under the Clean Air Act are protected, implemented and enforced. The EPA and every state must have adequate funding to monitor and protect our citizens from air pollution and new threats caused by increased temperatures.”
More Safeguards Needed to Protect Health
The American Lung Association calls for several steps to safeguard the air everyone breathes:
• Strengthen the outdated ozone standards. The EPA must adopt an up-to-date ozone limit that follows the current health science and the law to protect human health. Strong standards will drive much needed cleanup of ozone pollution across the nation.
• Adopt a strong final Clean Power Plan. The EPA needs to issue tough final requirements to reduce carbon pollution from power plants.
• Protect the Clean Air Act. Congress needs to ensure that the protections under the Clean Air Act remain effective and enforced. States should not be allowed to “opt out” of Clean Air Act protections.
• Fund the work to provide healthy air. Congress needs to adequately fund the work of the EPA and the states to monitor and protect the nation from air pollution.
To see how your community ranks in “State of the Air 2015,” to learn how to protect yourself and your family from air pollution, and to join the fight for healthy air, visit: www.StateOfTheAir.org.
The American Lung Association “State of the Air 2015” report uses the most recent quality-assured air pollution data, collected by federal, state and local governments and tribes in 2011, 2012, and 2013. These data come from official monitors for the two most widespread types of pollution, ozone and particle pollution. The report grades counties, ranking cities and counties based on scores calculated by average number of unhealthy days (for ozone and for short-term particle pollution) and by annual averages (for year-round particle pollution).