HELENA — The American Lung Association is ranking three Montana counties as having some of the worst air quality in the nation with regards to particulates on a 24-hour basis.
Particulates would include the contents of wood smoke, both that produced by wildfires and also from homeowners who use wood as a source of heating during the winter months.
Receiving a failing grade from the American Lung Association State of the Air 2013 report are Lewis and Clark, Ravalli, and Butte-Silver Bow counties. Lewis and Clark County ranked 23rd worst in the nation for short-term particulate pollution, while Butte-Silver Bow County came in at 25th, according to the association’s report.
Flathead, Richland and Sanders counties all earned top grades for particulate pollution with no unhealthy days, according to the report. Gallatin and Lincoln counties were average with a grade of C, and Missoula earned a D.
Frank Preskar, the environmental programs manager with the Lewis and Clark City-County Health Department, takes issue with the grade of F and said there is only one air-quality monitoring station in Lewis and Clark County.
The air-quality station is located at Rossiter School on Sierra Road in the Helena Valley.
“Grouping the whole county into that really isn’t very fair. We don’t know what the rest of the county looks like,” Preskar said. The county, which consists of slightly more than 3,500 square miles, includes towns far beyond the Helena Valley where winter inversions trap pollutants from wood smoke and vehicle exhausts.
There’s no air-quality data for the towns of Craig and Wolf Creek along the Missouri River to the north of Helena nor Lincoln in the forested mountains to the west or Augusta on the edge of the Rocky Mountains.
The report, said Kim Davitt, with the American Lung Association’s office in Missoula, is based on a three-year average and involves 2009, 2010 and 2011.
Helena had an average of 6.8 days with unhealthy particulate pollution levels annually during those three years, a news release notes.
The association includes both days when unhealthy air is trapped by winter inversions and those during the summer months when smoke from wildfire can blanket the county.
Wildfires are included by the association, as the smoke from them also affects people’s health, Davitt said.
“Lewis and Clark County has struggled with particulate pollution for years from summer wildfires and winter woodstove use. By far, the largest contributor to PM2.5 (a fine particulate matter about a fourth of the size of road gravel dust) is smoke from residential woodstove combustion,” the American Lung Association news release states.
The association’s report, which is not intended to assign blame to cities and counties, Davitt said, is a way to initiate a public discussion on air quality and what that means to public health.
While Lewis and Clark County received an F grade in last year’s State of the Air report, the grade is not anticipated by Davitt to improve next year because of forest fire smoke in 2012, which will be included in the new three-year average.
The county did exceed the Environmental Protection Agency limit for PM2.5 of 35 micrograms per cubic meter of air in 2012, said Kathy Moore, environmental division administrator with the Health Department. This is one reason why the county is moving forward to voluntarily join an EPA program offering help to local governments that see their air quality in jeopardy.
Participating in the EPA’s Particulate Advance Program could offer access to limited federal resources to potentially help reduce the level of these particulates that once inhaled can migrate into a person’s bloodstream and create health problems.
The program has made money available to Libby to help homeowners there trade in their old and inefficient wood-burning stoves for new ones certified by EPA to generate less pollution.
A survey of those who use wood-burning stoves locally found most did not think they contributed to particulate pollution or posed a danger to public health, Preskar said.
For most of the year, he added, that’s probably a fair assumption.
But during the dozen or so days each winter when a discolored layer of air blankets the city and county, the county issues air quality alerts.
These are the days, Preskar said, that people can help by burning small and hot fires to heat their homes and not loading the stove with wood at night before going to bed and then closing the damper so the fire burns slower and longer.
Moore said she didn’t think the county’s air should be rated as among the worst in the nation for particulates and noted that officials here are taking additional steps to clean the air.
“We actually think we are improving air quality and that will become evident in the coming years,” Moore said.
The county is applying for a $50,000 grant from the state Department of Environmental Quality to help with education and efforts targeting air quality.
If the county is successful, $5,000 will be spent to develop advertisements about improving the efficiency of using wood-burning stoves such as by burning dried firewood and upgrading when possible to EPA-certified stoves.
A little more than $19,000 will be spent for a roller to be pulled behind a county road department grader that will compact newly graded roads to reduce the amount of dust created during grading. The remainder of the money is planned for the purchase of magnesium chloride, a chemical applied to gravel roads that binds the material and reduces dust from passing traffic.
Because the State of the Air report includes wildfire smoke when discussing particulate matter in the air, the county can use it to try to educate people on how to protect themselves, Moore said.
The Health Department is working on several studies and programs to address particulate pollution, according to an email sent to the American Lung Association that was provided by Melanie Reynolds, the department’s health officer.
“We have identified residential smoke as our no. 1 source of particulate matter and are educating the public on the importance of burning wood as cleanly and efficiently as possible,” Preskar stated in the email sent to the American Lung Association for the news release.
County air quality regulations on the use of wood-burning stoves, approved in November 2011, allow officials to prohibit the use of non-EPA certified stoves when the winter air quality is ranked as poor, Moore said.
These regulations are aimed at only the worst days for air quality, Moore said, adding that officials appreciate cooperation from those who rely on wood-burning stoves. It’s because of their help, she said, “our air quality is improving.”