Steamboat Springs When we think of living in the mountains, we think of breathing clean fresh mountain air, right? What we think is not exactly what we get. For me, anyway, it wasn't until I moved to the mountains that I started experiencing breathing problems, which soon led to a diagnosis of asthma.
The reality is that although we don't see them, pollutants are in the air, even in Steamboat Springs. These invisible health hazards are painfully obvious to people who have asthma.
Asthma is the leading chronic illness affecting American children, and the disease has been increasing in adults during the past 25 years. Usually because of an environmental trigger, people with asthma experience inflammation and constriction of their airways. This causes wheezing, coughing, tightness in the chest and shortness of breath.
According to Mike Zopf, director of the Routt County Department of Environmental Health, air quality in Steamboat is monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
In the 1970s, Steamboat's air quality rating was poor, based on particulate matter in the air, Zopf said. Particulate matter is made up of dust, dirt, soot, smoke and liquid droplets. Since the 1980s, however, the city of Steamboat Springs has improved the air quality rating by increasing its street sweeping, Zopf said. Currently, our local air quality rating is in compliance with the State Health Department, he added.
The winter months of February and March, when snow accumulation is the highest, are often the most challenging for asthmatics, Zopf said. During the winter, cars kick up more chemicals and particles into the air. Wood- and gas-burning stoves are used more, and power plant emissions are higher. If you want proof, just watch how quickly the snow piles become coated in grime and scoria between snowfalls.
Many people who have asthma pay close attention to reports of the air quality index (AQI) reported in news media and on Web sites. Like the weather, air quality can change from day to day or even hour to hour. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other agencies are working to make information about outdoor air quality as accessible as weather forecasts.
The AQI uses five major air pollutants regulated by the Clean Air Act: ground-level ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide.
Networks monitor and record the concentrations of major pollutants at more than 1,000 locations across the U.S. each day. These measurements are then converted into AQI values using standard formulas developed by the EPA. Each individual pollutant is measured, and the pollutant with the highest AQI is listed as the principal pollutant for that day.
Asthma patients and others with breathing difficulties should avoid heavy outdoor exercise and stay inside as much as possible on days when the pollution level is high. In Colorado, this often is during the summer fire season, when wildfires can be abundant because of dry conditions.
Clean air is everyone's business. Even if you don't wheeze or cough, air pollutants are having negative health effects on your lungs, heart and blood vessels.
Although much of our air pollution comes from power plants and industrial sources, our vehicles contribute significantly to the problem. The choices we make every day can increase or decrease air pollution and can protect or threaten our health. You have the power to change your home, transportation and consumer habits to help reduce air pollution.
Here is what everyone can do to pollute less and save money:
n Recycle paper, plastic, glass bottles, cardboard and aluminum cans. This conserves energy and reduces production emissions.
n Keep woodstoves and fireplaces well maintained.
n Use public transportation, walk or ride a bike.
n Be informed. Share what you know with your family and friends.
One and a half million emergency room visits are made each year because of asthma attacks, many of which are related to air quality. Keeping the air clean is a way of keeping our community healthy.
For questions or more information regarding Routt County's air quality, call Mike Zopf at 879-0185.
Mindy Fontaine is public relations coordinator at Yampa Valley Medical Center.