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Wildfire Smoke Yet Another Peril for Students in Schools

Ben Lasseter

It’s one of those days in late September when the air is crisp and cool. What many runners call perfect conditions. 

"This is like my kind of weather."

That’s Marajah Pease. She’s a junior on the Tongue River High School cross country team in northeast Wyoming. This season, the weather hasn’t always been so ideal for their afternoon practices. 

"Like when it's smoky, just like dries your throat, and it's kind of hard to like breathe and try to motivate yourself to keep going, especially during like an actual race," she said.

Coach Laine Parish says in the past he mostly looked at the weather forecast for temperatures, and rain or snow to see if it would be a good day for practice. Now he has other concerns. 

This year, we've had to look at Air Quality Index, and especially in the first week, it was bad," he said. 

Earlier in the season, the A-Q-I rose above 100, which is considered unhealthy for children. Parish says when it gets that bad, the team takes a bus up Black Mountain where conditions tend to be better. 

But researchers say wildfire smoke is an increasing threat to children. And the problem isn’t just outside. When smoke’s around for a long time, contaminated air ends up indoors, like in a classroom or school gym.

Roy Anderson is the emergency manager for the Washoe County School District in Nevada, which includes Reno. 

"So we really had some poor really poor air quality days, where we actually did have to close school."

Last year, the district moved classes online ten separate days because of wildfire smoke. That’s also happened several times this fall. 

Anderson says there’s not an exact A-Q-I that will cause the district to cancel school. Instead, they consider a number of things, like weather patterns and how long kids waiting for the bus might be exposed to hazardous air. 

Anderson says coming up with a policy was a challenge. 

"When we were doing our research, for looking at what, you know, what other districts do, there really wasn't a lot of guidance out there." 

Since then, the federal government has provided some help. In June, the Environmental Protection Agency and two other groups released interim guidelines for schools, as well as commercial and public buildings.

The guidelines describe how schools can reduce pollutants from wildfire smoke. They’re called particulates and some are so small they can travel deep into the lungs, and even enter the bloodstream.

Sarah Coefield is an air quality specialist with the Missoula City-County Health Department in Montana. She says the guidelines are a really critical step. Here’s why:

"There is not actually a standard for indoor air quality, there is no requirement that your indoor air have a reduced particulate concentration. And so it is a bit of a free for all right now."

In other words, schools aren’t required to test or clean air that is contaminated by wildfire smoke. And new research suggests that indoor air isn’t necessarily cleaner. So while the new guidelines don’t set enforceable standards, Coefield says building managers have a good place to begin. 

"There's more to it than just even replacing the filter with a better filter."

For example, building managers need to see if their HVAC system can handle a higher efficiency filter before adding it. 

Plus, air sensors can tell them how bad the problem is. 

Colleen Reid is a geography professor at C-U Boulder who researches environmental impacts on health. She says Denver schools stay open if the air quality is better there than at children's homes. But here’s the problem: no one has that data. 

And Reid just received an E-P-A grant to do just that. She and a group of researchers will place air sensors in Denver-area schools and homes to get a better idea—if it’s safer for kids to stay home or go to school. 

Meanwhile, the E-P-A is working with industry to come up with final guidelines on keeping indoor air safe. Those are expected in 2022.

The Mountain West News Bureau is a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.