Sadly, we have already had Teton Valley’s first whiff of wildfire smoke this year. Actual wildfires and big brush fires are few and far between in the valley, but we regularly do get smoke from even distant fires at the whim of the wind. The early start to the smoke this year doesn’t bode well for us this summer.
When we look at the EPA’s rating of how dangerous certain air quality levels are to our health, we see ratings divided into color-coded groups for ease of understanding and reporting. Of course, it is much more complicated than that. Pollutants in the air do not come in well-defined groups with color codes; they are usually measured in micrograms of pollutants per cubic meter of air. The air quality index is based on nice even groups of numbers, but whether those groups accurately reflect the danger is in question. Several studies by medical professionals in various fields seem to be telling us that the AQI index may be underestimating the threat. In the future, as air quality concern grows right here in Teton Valley, we will be taking a much closer look at those.
The size of the particles we breathe is another essential factor. Larger ones, such as blowing dust, may be more visible, dramatic, and uncomfortable, but our bodies’ natural defenses are better equipped to deal with them. Smaller particles, like those in smoke, can sneak past bandanas and the protective goo in our airways and get down farther into our lungs, which is not good. The Air Quality Index takes this into account with different rating scales for different size particles.
Another important question, of course, is just what is in those particles. Anyone who’s ever been around a campfire that accidentally included some poison ivy on the firewood knows that not all smoke is created equal. So obviously, it’s not just the amount and size of the pollution, but what it is.
These are all things that, with the help of some people a lot smarter than me about such things, I hope to explore with you in future Teton Valley News weather blogs. As always, we will put special emphasis on the impact on our beautiful Teton Valley. And meanwhile, you can check the air quality yourself with two publicly accessible monitors in the valley, one in downtown Driggs and one in Packsaddle, and two more in Jackson Hole. You can access them through purpleair.com. Stay tuned.