Nancy's Almanac, Jan. 30, 2013: Nebraska fires likely took health toll


Last year's historic fires in Nebraska — the worst on record in the state — must have been rough on the respiratory health of those downwind.

According to a Colorado State University study, the High Park Fire in Colorado released as much pollution as occurs on the worst days in a major metropolitan area like Mexico City or Los Angeles.

John Volckens, a professor of environmental and radiological health sciences, conducted the study with Chuck Henry, a professor of chemistry.

The High Park fire occurred in the mountains west of Fort Collins in June. It burned more than 87,000 acres, claimed one life and destroyed at least 259 homes. Soon thereafter, its destructiveness was eclipsed by the Waldo Canyon fire.

By comparison, a set of fires last summer in Nebraska's Pine Ridge consumed more than 85,000 acres, and a set in the Niobrara River valley consumed more than 75,000 acres.

Just before the High Park Fire, Colorado had some of the cleanest air in the country, based on monitors in place.

That changed quickly, according to research by Volckens and Henry. Smoke from the fire released more pollution than Colorado had seen in decades, they determined.

A novel aspect of this study was the way Volckens and Henry monitored the actual air people were breathing as opposed to taking large regional samples.

The researchers measured pollution by asking people in the Fort Collins area to wear small monitors on their shoulders.

The monitors collected particulate matter, or tiny bits of soot, from the air. These tiny bits of smoky dust lodge deep in person's lungs, irritating tissue. This damage is known as oxidative stress and can develop into disease. It is one reason people are encouraged to include antioxidants in their diets, the researchers noted.

“We have different lifestyles, different sources of air pollution in our homes and live in different proximity to major sources of air pollution in our homes,” Henry said in a press release from the university. “We've always looked at air pollution from 30,000 feet. Monitoring the individual could also help people know when they're inhaling pollutants or bringing them home from work.”

To learn more, read the paper published in Environmental Science and Technology.

This type of research will help in the long run because it will allow society to tailor solutions to the types of pollution most likely to hurt people.

“Not all air pollution is created equally for everyone,” Volckens said.

Source: Colorado State University, Wikipedia (Waldo and High Park fires), World-Herald archives.

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