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Smoke from Western fires consumes region

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Officials recommend limiting exposure to poor air quality 

By Brandon Walker EBS STAFF

BIG SKY – To many in 2020, masks have become an indispensable item ranking alongside phones and wallets in importance. As smoke lingers, cloaking Gallatin County in a shroud of haze, masks have become multifaceted, deterring particulates in the smoky air from entering their wearer’s respiratory system.

According to the federal air-quality site, air is classified as “unhealthy” when it reaches an Air Quality Index rating of more than 150. As of EBS press time, air quality in Big Sky and Bozeman was classified as unhealthy, showing ratings of 161.

Pattie Polakow, a respiratory therapy and neurodiagnostics manager at Bozeman Health, said people may experience a cough, irritation or sore throat, and chest heaviness as a result of the poor air quality.

“Wearing a mask outside can be helpful,” said Dr. Kaley Burns, a naturopathic medicine physician and owner of Big Sky Natural Health, adding that staying hydrated is also important in the dry Montana climate. “Anything to really help protect our mucus membranes and airways are going to be beneficial.”

Burns also recommends utilizing air purifiers and consuming foods with high quantities of antioxidants and with anti-inflammatory properties. Smoking cigarettes, she said, compounds the effects from inhaling the lingering smoke.

Wildfires are another primary source of particle pollution, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As of press time classified Big Sky, Bozeman, and West Yellowstone’s particulate matter concentration as 2.5.

“Fine (smaller) particles, called PM2.5, are more dangerous because they can get into the deep parts of your lungs — or even into your blood,” reads the CDC website.

“When particulates are 3-5 microns, they embed into the smallest airways of our lungs and are not easily removed by coughing,” Polakow wrote in an email to EBS. “This causes inflammation, redness, swelling and airway remodeling; chronic uncontrolled inflammation (years and years) can lead to a diagnosis of Emphysema.”

Burns says the body reacts to smoke in the same way it reacts to allergic reactions and is hard on certain organs.

“It basically just irritates [the lungs] and starts to kind of illicit that similar immune activation like when we’re responding to pollen or an allergy,” she said. “Then all of that obviously gets processed in the lungs and into the liver so the liver does a lot of work trying to process a lot of these toxins and particulates and biological substances that are in our environment.” 

Polakow recommends avoiding outdoor exercise activities, restricting the duration of time spent outside, and utilizing personal protective equipment if individuals do have to venture out of their homes. 

“Chronic exposure over time to environmental exposures are relevant and can cause an increase incidence of COPD,” Polakow said, referring to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

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