Hooper girl's life revolves around asthma, wildfire smoke

Tuesday , June 11, 2013 - 10:00 AM

NOTE: This is the second in a three-part series. Sunday's segment looked at how meager snowpacks, drier summers and bigger and more frequent wildfires threaten to smother Utah in more dangerous smoke pollution. Tuesday's segment will look at how foul winds of Western wildfires often blow toxins into Utah’s already spotty air.

HOOPER — The Pearce family loves spending time together outdoors. They love to camp and visit various attractions throughout the state.

But this year, they are only penciling in their plans, especially those toward the end of the summer. With a high danger of wildfires this year, they are afraid their 13-year-old, Lauren, who has asthma, won’t be able to breathe if they get too far away from home.

“When there is a forest fire, our life totally stops,” said Katrina Pearce, Lauren’s mother.

“Last year, we had to cancel a camping trip when a whole hill burned down,” Lauren said of the wildfire last June and July near Herriman.

“Once, we had to get up and leave in the middle of the night,” Katrina said of the emergency another wildfire created for her family. “We were just throwing our stuff everywhere.”

The mother said Lauren has struggled with asthma since age 4.

And thanks to three years of allergy shots as well as nontraditional massage treatments, Katrina said, her daughter has gotten her asthma pretty well under control.



That is, until there’s an inversion or a wildfire.

“We really do plan our activities around stuff like fires,” the mother said. “These are the triggers she still has. She is just miserable if she has to be around the smoke.”

And last summer, when Utah had record dry conditions, Katrina said, her daughter suffered a lot.

“Lauren had to stay inside the house for about a week due to having asthma, and the fire about killed her,” the mother said. “I drove her to Morgan one day just so she could be outside, but the air there wasn’t great either.”

And Lauren is not alone.

At least a third of Americans have breathing or heart conditions that put them at risk from the soot from wildfires, according to an Associated Press report.

And even people with no health problems can be affected by the worst plumes, which can remain toxic over hundreds, even thousands, of miles.

Researchers are working to better understand this, too.

“The health consequences of forest fire smoke is of critical interest as fires are anticipated to occur more frequently, spread more rapidly and burn more intensely,” said Dr. Michelle Bell, a Yale researcher leading a two-year study looking at health risks to communities from wildfires under a changing climate.

Wildfire smoke is what is left from incomplete combustion of whatever is burned. It contains, among other things, carbon monoxide, nitric oxide, irritants like formaldehyde, carcinogens like benzene and, most of all, particulate matter — tiny bits of ash suspended in the air.

Some experts compare burning vegetation to tobacco smoke for its harmful effects.

When a half-million acres burned outside Moscow in August 2010, Dr. Alexander Chuchalin, Russia’s chief pulmonologist, said the impact on residents’ hearts and lungs “equals the effect of two packs of cigarettes smoked within two or three hours.”

Respiratory damage from wildfire smoke has been documented in dozes of studies. The main culprit is fine particulate matter, less than 2.5 micrometers in size. In comparison, a human hair is about 60 micrometers across.

While larger particles can irritate the eyes, throat and lungs, the smaller ones go deep into the lungs and cause inflammation.

People known to have breathing problems are affected, but many people who have never had respiratory problems have suffered, too.

“We see a lot of patients come into the ER or our clinic during major smoke events who have breathing problems that they never encountered before,” said Dr. Thomas Szwed, a pulmonologist at St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Jacksonville, Fla.

Several Top of Utahns say they had to change their routines when wildfires brought smoke into the valleys.

Katrina Pearce said Lauren is helped by houseplants that clean the indoor air. She said she learned about the air-cleaning effects of plants on the Internet after reasoning in her mind about cleaner air in the environment in the spring and summer when more plants are growing.

“It was, like, amazing, the difference it made,” she said. “We went from using indoor filters, like plug-in systems, to just using our plants. You could walk in, and you could just feel that the air was cleaner. The houseplants have become a great lifesaver for us.”

Katrina said she believes broadleaf plants are the best at cleaning indoor air.

NASA researchers have mentioned peace lilies as among the top houseplants for removing volatile organic compounds from the air.

Katrina said when she bought $200 worth of houseplants to put in every room in her house to help her daughter a few years ago, she noticed that her peace lilies were even marketed as “the air purifier” by tags on them in the store.

And she said when she got home, the change was immediately evident.

“We noticed a difference within a couple of hours of bringing the plants into our home,” Katrina said.

Taking steps to make sure one’s home has plenty of clean air is probably a good idea for everyone as the air in Utah continues to worsen.

Bo Call, manager of the Air Monitoring Center for the Utah Division of Air Quality, said determining how much of Utah’s bad air is associated with wildfires is difficult.

“Not all smoke is created equal. It’s one of those variables that we don’t understand fully.”

But he said the wildfires are just one of a number of factors contributing to worsening air in the state.

“The economy has been dragging,” he said. “A lot of businesses have not been working at capacity.”

But now, he said, businesses are using more production capability, and that is adding to the pollutants.

“Also, there are more people. You have to account for normal growth.”

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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