Wildfire smoke’s health impacts lingered for years, according to Montana study

The McKinley fire as seen from the air Sunday. (Photo by Clay Dillard, via KTNA)

This summer has been filled with smoke for communities near the Swan Lake fire like Sterling and Cooper landing, and while it hasn’t been quite as bad to the north, many thousands more people in Anchorage and elsewhere and Alaska have experienced worse-than-usual air quality.

So what does this mean for people’s lungs and what are the long-term health effects?

Those questions are at the heart of a study in Montana, where wildfire smoke was so bad two years ago that the town of Seeley Lake had a nearly 50-day stretch with air quality registering in the “very unhealthy” range. The Missoula City-County Health Department asked the University of Montana to measure the health impacts from all that smoke.

Chris Migliaccio at UM’s School of Pharmacy is leading the study. He talked about it with Alaska Public Media’s Casey Grove.

Grove: I know your study is ongoing. But what have you found out so far?

Migliaccio: So yeah, we first visited the town of Seeley Lake inke in 2017. And we’ve been able to go back the last two years, late spring, early summer, to reevaluate our participants. And our biggest findings so far, and the one aspect we’ve been focused on, is on lung function. So all the participants got full spirometry testing, a all-encompassing test for lung function. And we’ve been able to revisit multiple people over the years. And what we found that as a whole, that we saw a decrease in their lung function. There seems to be a small increase this last year, but it’s still well below what they had, when we first tested them right after the fires.

Grove: When you were first looking at the early results, were you surprised by what you saw?

Migliaccio: We were we. And maybe it was naively, we thought that after almost 50 days of exposure to these high levels of smoke, that people’s lung function might be more compromised, you know, after all that time, and then given a year later, that that would be enough time to recover. And so we expected that the values would be lower in 2017 and then have improved within, you know, 10 to 11 months later when we returned. So that was why it was a little surprising. And then we’re still as a cohort they’re still decreased even two years out. Hopefully, we’ll be able to get back there next year and see if that small bump up is a continuing trend, because we’ve lucked out, we didn’t have bad fire season this year.

Grove: So two years out, you’re finally starting to see kind of a rebound, in some way, a small one at least?

Migliaccio Yeah, you know, as I tell people, when we discuss where we are with this data, you know, I mean, with any long term study, you need to see what trend is going on. Is this bump up the beginning of a trend for recovery? Or is this now, you know, next year will be about the same meaning that OK, this is their new normal? The more the longer we can follow people out, the more information we have, as far as what does this mean long term?

Grove: We’ve been told, you know, this summer, when the smoke is is bad to stay indoors, maybe not exert yourself, keep your windows closed. From what you can tell, do you get a sense of whether or not that even helps?

Migliaccio: When that happens, if you can’t leave, which if it’s an extended period, you can’t, that trying to limit your activity, like you said, staying indoors, you’re still going to get exposed indoors because nobody lives in a hermetically sealed house. You know, trying to create a safe space. So if you can have a HEPA filter in a particular room or even throughout your home to decrease that particular exposure really can help.

Grove: Have you had personal experience with this problem with welfare smoke?

Migliaccio: Oh, yeah, yeah. The year we had the 2017 fire up in Seeley, we had another fire south of Missoula, where I lived. And then I think it was 2007 we actually had an international smoke research conference here at UM, and just prior to that conference, we had a huge fire. I, you know, we were all exposed to smoke. For about an entire month that summer, I just had a horrible cough, and it just wouldn’t go away even after the smoke cleared. So I think everybody’s got those types of stories living here and probably in Alaska after being exposed, whether you’ve had a sore throat, or you got sick more often later that year. Yeah, I’ve gone through multiples of these and feel it’s important to try and figure out what our long-term health issues may be.

Casey Grove is host of Alaska News Nightly, a general assignment reporter and an editor at Alaska Public Media. Reach him at cgrove@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Casey here

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