By NORA AVERY-PAGE
H&N Staff Reporter
As summer heats up in the Klamath Basin, so does the chance for wildfire, and with it, smoke-filled air. Poor air quality can be the cause of a variety of health issues, and can exacerbate existing heart and lung health problems in sensitive individuals.
Jim Harris, a registered respiratory therapist and the director of Sky Lakes Medical Center's Cardiopulmonary Department said that poor air quality and more particulates in the air can increase the likelihood of patients with respiratory disease having increased respiratory symptoms and possibly increased shortness of breath.
Air quality is measured by the Department of Environmental Quality through the Air Quality Index, or AQI, which measures the parts per million and micrograms per cubic meter, of pollutant concentration.
The air quality rating, based off that calculation, is broken down by color:
- Green is good;
- Yellow is moderate;
- Orange means the air is unhealthy for people in sensitive groups;
- Red is unhealthy for everyone;
- Purple is very unhealthy, and;
- Maroon means the pollutants in the air are at hazardous levels.
Jim Carey, the air quality technician at the Klamath County Department of Public Health, said that people who fall in to the sensitive group include those with current respiratory health problems, as well as children and seniors.
"If we give an advisory, we would suggest that people stay indoors," Carey said, explaining what the health department would do if the AQI rating were to move above green or yellow.
Carey also suggests that people follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control when it comes to dealing with smoky skies. The first step is recognizing when the air quality is affecting you.
According to the CDC, smoke in the air can cause coughing, a scratchy throat, irritated sinuses, shortness of breath, chest pain, headaches, stinging eyes, a runny nose and asthma exacerbations.
People who have heart disease might experience chest pain, rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, and fatigue; smoke can also worsen symptoms for people with pre-existing respiratory conditions, such as respiratory allergies, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Their worsened symptoms could include the inability to breathe normally, coughing with or without mucus, chest discomfort, and wheezing and shortness of breath.
Harris suggests that cardiopulmonary patients stay indoors on high-particulate days, and use their respiratory medications as prescribed by a physician to prevent the likelihood of worsening respiratory issues.
Unfortunately, 100 percent prevention of respiratory symptoms is not always possible, Harris said. During red AQI days, Carey said that everyone should avoid being outside.
For active people who may want to exercise outside, Carey again suggested that those people be aware of when the poor air is affecting them, and stop or adjust their routine as needed if they are feeling any discomfort.
Staying indoors with the windows closed to prevent fresh air from coming inside can be difficult for people with no air conditioning at home. Carey suggests if you don't have a good ventilation system, go somewhere that does, like a public building, or contact the Red Cross for potential shelter assistance.
Usually during the summer, unless there are fires burning close by, the Basin air has good dispersion, or mixing, high in the atmosphere, and good winds, Carey added.
Check local air quality
There are several websites to check local air quality ratings, including through the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, the Klamath County Department of Public Health, or the Healthy Klamath health ratings website healthyklamath.org.
The DEQ website shows the state, with large colored dots showing the Air Quality Index ratings in various locations, with a breakdown of what the different colors mean. Green means air quality is good, while orange is unhealthy for sensitive groups, and red or purple is unhealthy for everyone.
The health department website is based off of the DEQ ratings, but since air quality has been at a "green" level for a while, it is not currently updated. If and when local air quality changes, the website will be more frequently updated with local information.