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Sue M., MT

I am Montana artist. I sell my work at shops, galleries and throughout the region, but much of my livelihood is from art festivals. Every summer I travel to outdoor art fairs around Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.

I love being outdoors. It's why I am here. But I have a serious allergic reaction to smoke and particulate matter. Poor air-quality days make my life miserable (and scary). Forest fires are natural late-summer events in the West, but people cause smoky air all year. Between trapped pollution during winter weather inversions, summer forest fires, and prescription burns in both the spring and fall, there are many more smoky days than I would like.

For me a little smoke is way too much. If i's a smoky night and friends want to go for a walk, I can't. If there's an outdoor event and the smoke gets bad, I have to leave. If I want to bike somewhere but it's smoky, I drive. I cannot camp in campgrounds in our National Parks.

I don't consider myself a sickly person. I'm not the only one smoke is bad for. It just hurts me first. During 40 years of living here, my allergies have gotten worse, as I have gotten more and more exposure. Aching lungs is difficult, but it can get really serious. Just like someone who is allergic to bee stings, when the air is really dirty, my throat swells shut.

My first really terrifying smoke incident happened about ten years ago. I was selling at an outdoor art festival, and camping at night. Everyone at the campground had a fire going. In the middle of the night my throat started to close up, and I couldn't breathe. I was 20 miles from the nearest town and didn't even know if they had a hospital.

Fortunately, one of the other campers had some Benadryl. I think that saved my life. I took it, and got in my truck, started driving as fast as I could, in the dark, down a lonely two-lane highway. As I drove, I called 9-1-1. Fortunately they told me there was a hospital in the small town 20 miles away (the next nearest town was 50 miles.) By the time I got there, the sheriff was out looking for me. At the hospital, they gave me a shot to stop the reaction.

At that time, I hadnt really known what was going on. When the doctor explained everything, it was hard to imagine that an allergic reaction to bad air could cause all of that. Now that I know how serious my allergies can get, I keep a supply of Benadryl with me at all times. I also try to stay inside when I know the air quality is bad.

Montana is my home and enjoying the out-of-doors is my life. I could move, or stay inside with an air filter but what kind of quality of life is that? Instead, I try to fight back. I joined the Missoula Air Quality Council, and I am determined to do everything I can to make our air cleaner. Clean air is worth fighting for. It's our birthright. I'm trying to save my life and hopefully other people will benefit, too.

First Published: April 15, 2013

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