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American Lung Assn: Short-term Exposure to Particle Pollution Can Kill

Woodsmoke particle taken from a human lung, 900x

According to the American Lung Association “short-term exposure to particle pollution can kill.” This statement puts our high PM 2.5 levels in a sobering context for visitors to our community as well as residents.

“Short-term” is also called the 24-hour average, reported in the Fairbanks North Star Borough from the downtown monitoring station and posted on the Air Quality Index.

From American Lung Association’s 2010 State of the Air report section on the health risks of particle pollution:

Deaths can occur on the very day that particle levels are high, or within one to two months afterward. Particle pollution does not just make people die a few days earlier than they might otherwise—these are deaths that would not have occurred if the air were cleaner.

Particle pollution also diminishes lung function, causes greater use of asthma medications and increased rates of school absenteeism, emergency room visits and hospital admissions. Other adverse effects can be coughing, wheezing, cardiac arrhythmias and heart attacks. According to the findings from some of the latest studies, short-term increases in particle pollution have been linked to:

  • death from respiratory and cardiovascular causes, including strokes;
  • mortality in infants and young children;
  • increased numbers of heart attacks, especially among the elderly and in people with heart conditions;
  • inflammation of lung tissue in young, healthy adults;
  • increased hospitalization for cardiovascular disease, including strokes and congestive heart failure;
  • increased emergency room visits for patients suffering from acute respiratory ailments;
  • increased hospitalization for asthma among children; and
  • increased severity of asthma attacks in children. 

The American Lung Association’s State of the Air report makes abundantly clear is that residents and visitors alike risk mortal danger just breathing in our community. Winter visitors travel to Fairbanks to see the aurora borealis, watch or experience dog mushing, marvel at world-class ice carving, cheer for curlers, ski trails through the boreal forest, and altogether appreciate the wonders of our community deep in the wilds of northern Alaska.

Electron Micrographs A: Control without particle exposure. B: Exposure to 1 μm particles (PM 2.5). Note the numerous particles (P) taken up inside the epithelial cells.

Dozens of times each winter our high fine particle levels exceed federal standards, often double or triple the standard of 35 micrograms per cubic meter. When you read the statement from the ALA report above, “Deaths can occur on the very day that particle levels are high,” you have to think twice whether it is safe for anyone here. There are other fine subarctic communities which welcome visitors to share in their winter traditions and experiences without the levels of smoke we routinely endure.

If you’re a visitor or a potential visitor, please consider alerting our Governor to your safety concerns regarding the smoke. Contact Governor Sean Parnell sean.parnell@alaska.gov and tell him the people are warm but the smoke is too thick. Please send us a copy of your note, cleanairfairbanks@gmail.com.

The State of Alaska Department of Health Division of Epidemiology reported on the association between elevated PM 2.5 and Fairbanks hospital admissions 8/30/2010 and also produced this State of Alaska Department of Health and Human Services fact sheet on the report.

Without doubt our Governor is aware of the air quality problem. The puzzle is why he’s done so little to reduce the smoke. It’s not blowing in from Canada’s Yukon Territory or crossing the Bering Strait from Russia. Our smoke is locally grown, right in our own neighborhoods. The sources of coal and wood smoke can be required to use cleaner heating fuels in the winter. Yes, that will cost more. But hospital bills are far steeper and the health of our loved ones is precious beyond price.

We treasure our visitors and love to show off our community at its best. Yet, we cannot recklessly promote winter tourism and hide our serious air quality problem behind a smokescreen of, well, smoke. That just wouldn’t be right.

Please help identify sources of smoke in your neighborhood and near your child’s school. See post: Report an Air Pollution Concern, Violation, or Emergency.


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