Wildfire smoke drove down the air quality significantly in many parts of Oregon this summer and fall. Many students were not allowed to play or take breaks outside because of the high levels of air pollution from smoke. The Oregon Health Authority provides guidance for people — and school districts — trying to figure out what level of exposure is safe. And even though the rain has finally brought some relief, questions about how to respond to bad air quality are only going to get more urgent in the coming years.
Our guests are Molly Kile, professor in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences at Oregon State University; Gabriela Goldfarb, manager of the Environmental Public Health Section at the Oregon Health Authority; and Carl Mead, Deputy Superintendent of Operations and Support Services for the Beaverton School District. We discuss the effects of smoky air on young lungs, and what goes into the decisions that schools and health authorities have to make.
Editor’s note: In this conversation, Molly Kile misspoke when she explained the size of a particle measurement, or PM, of an air pollutant. The unit of measurement she was referring to in “PM 2.5″ should have been µm, one-millionth of a meter, also known as a micron.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. According to the site IQAir, for a few days last week Seattle and Portland had the worst air quality of any large cities in the world. The socked in wildfire smoke in the middle of October led to many questions about this new normal, questions about the long term effects of smoke exposure, and the choices that schools have to make in terms of when to cancel outdoor activities. In a few minutes we’ll hear from the Oregon Health Authority, plus an official from the Beaverton School District. But we start with a kind of primer on the dangers of exposure to wildfire smoke, especially for kids. Molly Kile is a professor in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences at Oregon State University, and joins us right now. Thanks very much for joining us.
Molly Kile: Thank you, it’s good to be here Dave.
Miller: On the EPA’s list of sensitive groups, when it comes to their information about air quality, it mentions older people, people with medical conditions like lung disease or diabetes, and children as being members of sensitive groups. Why are children at higher risk?
Kile: Yeah, kids are more vulnerable to all sorts of pollution, including air pollution. It comes down to a combination of biological factors. If you just think about the dose that they get from a given exposure, adults breathe about 23,000 breaths per day, but a child takes about 43,000 breaths per day. So their inhalation rate is just greater, they’re breathing more air.
And then their little bodies are still developing, their organ systems are still developing. The detoxification mechanisms are still immature. All of that kind of contributes to why they’re just more biologically vulnerable to air pollution.
Miller: So they’re breathing almost twice as many breaths as adults are. Does that mean that, per pound, they’re breathing in more stuff? Their breaths are also smaller though, so I’m trying to figure out how those two things go together.
Kile: Their lungs are smaller, they’re breathing faster, and when you take all that into consideration, pound for pound, a child would get more exposure than an adult in the same space.
Miller: What makes these tiny particles from wildfire smoke so bad?
Kile: That’s another great question. Wildfire smoke really is a combination of pollutants. One of the primary ones are the particles, we call it fine particulate matter, it also goes by the nickname PM 2.5, and that 2.5 refers to the diameter of those particles, meaning it’s 2.5 nanometers across. So these are super super super tiny particles that can be inhaled all the way into the lung, all the way down to the alveoli, which is where the gas exchange happens. And they can actually absorb into the bloodstream. Super tiny particles, you can fit maybe like 30 of them across the width of a human hair. They’re invisible to the eye until they get into these massive exposures that you see.
So the particles are really a big issue. And then there’s also a lot of carbon monoxide gas being produced. Things are burning. So you have this combination of particulate matter and gasses that just kind of creates a bad air pollution day.
Miller: What do we know about the short term effects of breathing in bad quality air?
Kile: The epidemiology of air pollution has been pretty well studied because of the Clean Air Act. And that act actually requires us to set levels that are protective of human health, it’s one of the few environmental laws that we have on the books that is purely a human health factor.
With children, it really is the exacerbation of asthma. Those children that already have asthma, these particles, these gasses can act as lung irritants and it can trigger asthma attacks. And then also, it does increase your risk of respiratory infections, those are some of the acute exposure effects that happen with these short high term events like wildfire smoke exposure.
Miller: What about the longer term ones, that seems like an area where undoubtedly we need to pay a lot more attention. This is what happened last week, it’s not the last time it’s going to happen. In the Portland metro area, it seemed novel a couple of years ago, but this is something that people in central Oregon and in many other parts of the west have been dealing with very seriously for decades now. So what do we know about the long term effects?
Kile: So the long term effects have also been studied, and that’s why we have air pollution standards that are set for short term as well as long term, and they are different. There was a really good longitudinal cohort study that was done out of USC, which showed how chronic exposure, long term elevated exposure over many years, actually does start to kind of change lung development, and will reduce the volume of lungs over time. The good news is when you remove those exposures, children will catch up in their growth, assuming that they’re still growing. So that’s another reason why kids are kind of more vulnerable, they’re still developing.
Miller: We’ve been talking here primarily about outdoor air quality, at least in my mind. How much of a concern is indoor air quality when it comes to protecting kids in particular?
Kile: Indoor air quality actually tends to be worse than outdoor air quality if you think about it, and that’s because we have a lot of combustion sources in our home that we just kind of forget about. We have gas stoves, we have furnaces, we burn candles, incense, things like that that can contribute to indoor air pollution. Plus these particles that we’re talking about, the PM 2.5, they’re so small that they just intrude into our indoor environments, so you also get that ambient air exposure, which is why it’s important to maintain the indoor air quality in your home.
Miller: What are the best ways people can do that?
Kile: So if you know what your air quality is outside, and there’s excellent resources, people can tap into, I particularly like to point people to airnow.gov, because that’s a website, you can just enter in your zip code and it will tell you the air quality from the nearest ambient outdoor air monitors. And if it’s a good air quality day, open your windows, air out your home. Make sure that your HVAC systems and your furnaces are operating correctly. Do your best to keep the extra sources of air pollution in your home to a minimum and make sure that they’re ventilated. Use that ventilation over your gas stove, use that, use that stove hood, open your windows and get some fresh air in those houses.
Miller: Molly Kile, thanks very much.
Kile: You’re welcome.
Miller: For another perspective on air quality and wildfire smoke, I’m joined now by Gabriela Goldfarb. She is the manager of the environmental public health section at the Oregon Health Authority. Welcome to the show.
Gabriela Goldfarb: Thanks so much for having me.
Miller: Can you give us a sense for how much you or people in your office have been talking with school districts about air quality over just the last few weeks?
Goldfarb: So as you noted, this is not a new issue, particularly for folks in southern Oregon, Central Oregon, eastern Oregon. They’ve been dealing with it for years. And when we have events like we recently had, it gets on the radar for a lot more people in our most populated areas. But we’ve been having this conversation for several years, and have developed some resources to give advice, give guidance, particularly for how to manage outdoor activities. We know how important movement is for kids. And so we developed a tool to help our school districts manage that balance between protecting kids when the air quality is bad outside, but letting them move, which is so important for learning in their day.
We aligned with research and tools that the Environmental Protection Agency and the US Centers for Disease Control developed at the national level, and we did one tailored locally that talks about what do you do for recess? What do you do for a one hour PE class? What about athletic events and practices? And so I think hopefully people are familiar with the air quality index that Professor Kile was talking about. I think most people now are familiar, green is good air quality, it goes through yellow, orange, red. Unfortunately all of us in the state back to 2020 experienced “hazardous”, the worst end of the scale. And each of those levels, for each of those kinds of outdoor activities, there’s recommendations for what to do. When the air gets to “unhealthy for sensitive groups” or “unhealthy,” which is where we saw things last week for example, advising to consider lowering the intensity of the activity, reducing the amount of time, and keeping track of those kiddos and the needs of those who are particularly sensitive, like kids with asthma.
Miller: It was that guidance that I saw from the Oregon Health Authority to schools that partly is the impetus for today’s conversation, because it confused me a little bit. As we mentioned at the beginning, according to the EPA, young people, children are listed as members of sensitive groups. And yet, when the air is “unhealthy for sensitive groups” according to the EPA, the Oregon Health Authority says it is an okay day for students to be active outside, say, for recess for 15 minutes.
Why is that? If kids are, as a whole, seen as sensitive groups, why let them go outside even for 15 minutes if the air is unhealthy for sensitive groups?
Goldfarb: To have an effective public health message, sometimes we simplify things. It’s true that as a whole, children are more sensitive for the reasons that Professor Kile described. But when you’re talking about 15 minutes for recess, or an hour, if a child is otherwise healthy, that level of exposure shouldn’t trigger a reaction, or is outweighed by the benefits.
The guidance that we have is very much aligned with a similar chart that EPA has on its website. They have that kind of big picture message that we wanna care about kids. But when it comes down to the details of giving practical guidance to schools, we are aligned with what EPA and the Centers for Disease Control has put out.
Miller: I’m just wondering where this leaves parents who want the best for their kids in every way. They don’t want them to be going stir crazy. They want them to be able to get the physical freedom and the emotional freedom of getting outside. But we can also see these charts that can be very scary, as the colors get more and more orange or red or purple, and we can hear things that Molly Kile just said about serious health effects.
What is a parent of a five year old supposed to do with the information when they see this is unhealthy for sensitive groups, you shouldn’t spend real time outside? How should we think about that?
Goldfarb: The science that these are based on, thanks to the Clean Air Act as Professor Kile was talking about, there’s a lot of research behind this. So when it’s unhealthy for sensitive groups, that’s a public health message for people who have respiratory illnesses, kids who have asthma, or other respiratory issues happening, typically that’s the most common one.
Kids have to listen to their body, and I think that’s the message for parents. If kids are not feeling great or want to take it easy, that they can. But they probably won’t at that level, at the unhealthy for sensitive groups. That’s what the “sensitive groups” means, those people who are going to feel it at that level. And certainly as it gets worse from there, at “unhealthy” levels, even for recess, the recommendation is considered keeping all students indoors or allowing only light outdoor activity.
All of this is guidance. And it really is going to come down to how much air pollution is out there, how long the exposure is going to be, and whatever the underlying conditions of the child are.
Miller: Gabriela Goldfarb, thanks very much.
Goldfarb: Thank you.
Miller: I thought we could play here a voicemail that has come in from Kenny in Portland. This is what he had to say.
Kenny: I had a really hard week. I had terrible headaches, and I felt like my body was saying “this isn’t okay, you’re not safe, you’re gonna hurt your lungs.” And I felt that way about my young children. I have a five year old and an eight year old, and they were going to school. My son is eight, had a really raspy voice throughout the week and was coughing. My daughter had a really leaky nose and she was coughing and not feeling well. They’re developing lungs. I think something needs to be done to address this now that it’s a reality in our lives, and I think that we need to pretty much shut down a lot of businesses during that time, because it’s dangerous to go outside and breathe our air. We need to be able to leave and have some time off. Kind of like a snow day.
Miller: We also asked our listeners on social media how poor air quality has been affecting them and their kids. Katy Rustvold on Facebook said “Outdoor practices and meets canceled district wide. Disappointing since we’re right at the end of fall sports season.”
Cassie Wilson Tweeted “Made it difficult to choose between Covid safety (sitting outside) and general safety from the smoke. Also made my climate grief worse. But now it’s raining yay”
Bethany on Twitter wrote “As a teacher, it means young children trapped inside with no outdoor recess for days. You can imagine the ramifications. It also means no commuting on my bike so less exercise (and mental health) for me. More importantly, it breaks my heart that this is the climate we are creating”
Demi Ray on Facebook wrote “The breath is everything. If you’re not breathing in clean air, you’re not living a quality life. My kids have had a cough since the beginning of the school year for many reasons, the fires included.”
Finally, we’ll be joined by Carl Mead. He’s the Deputy Superintendent of Operations and Support Services for the Beaverton School District. Carl Mead, how much did you cancel outdoor activities in Beaverton over the last week?
Carl Mead: Last week, primarily looking at the core of the day, recess is the biggest factor, recess and PE during the day. I would say starting on Tuesday we needed to start to look at canceling those activities as our AQI numbers continue to climb, as you were referring to earlier.
Miller: Do you make distinctions for air quality closures based on ages? Do you have a lower bar for a closure for kindergartners or first graders than you would for 11th graders?
Mead: We do not. We utilize the same index for all age categories.
Miller: What do you hear from parents about this?
Mead: First off, I think parents are relieved that we are monitoring and that we’re monitoring throughout the school day. I think that provides a lot of relief for them.
They’re also very interested in the numbers that we’re looking at, where does the guidance come from? And when we provide that background on that information, that helps them understand the science behind it. And more importantly, that we’re on this throughout the course of the day and making those decisions literally hour by hour based on air quality in the metro area.
Miller: As we heard at the beginning with Molly Kile, she said that indoor air quality can actually often be worse than outdoor. I want to play you a voicemail we got that really touches on this from a listener named Jeremy Wright?
Jeremy Wright: I work with school districts all over the state of Oregon, bonds to help remodel their schools, and have an understanding of the costs at stake here for us to actually change the actual structure and the building systems to make it so that they can handle these. And I’ve worked with some school districts that have been able to do it. I really think we need to have a conversation at the statewide level here, providing funding whether it’s through statewide bonds or other mechanisms to help our school systems turn over their building systems. Because trying to figure out how to open and close windows or have fans blowing is really just putting lipstick on a pig or a band-aid on a building.
Miller: Carl Mead, what’s your response to this, that he sees real problems in indoor air quality statewide that he says can only be fixed in a more systemic statewide fashion?
Mead: I would happen to agree with him. Primarily our funding that we’re able to utilize in the school district comes from our taxpayer base in the local area, and that’s through our bonds. And we have limitations on how much we’re able to do in the scope of those bonds. We recently passed one, and it’s good for six years, but it will only address a number of the systems throughout our district. When you’re talking 54 schools, there are limitations of how far those resources can go. So primarily, we rely on our local voters for those resources. Not a significant amount of resource is able to go into our facilities from the state.
Miller: What would you like to be able to do in terms of indoor air quality.
Mead: I think that we’ve actually stepped up quite a bit through COVD in understanding air quality, what we need to have in terms of filters, MERV 13 air filters throughout all of our facilities, and that’s ongoing. Even now back in session, being able to have resources at a higher level and encourage that potentially something along the lines coming from the state may benefit us. We’re fortunate in the Beaverton School district, we have a very supportive community that supports us in our bonds and our levees typically. That is not always the case throughout the state, and we’ve got to be able to look at this in a holistic fashion, more so than the one off school district. And again, it’s moving forward the betterment and welfare of our kids, ultimately,
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