During any one of the seven “air episodes” Missoulians experienced in August, it was not hard to witness decided differences in opinion regarding the health effects of particulate in the air. It was not uncommon to see a driver wearing a surgical mask on the same street as parents with small children headed to the park. From a medical standpoint, there is no question that fine particulate and smoke is deleterious to your health, so the question that remains is, what are the possible results of extensive exposure to wood smoke?
To answer that question, a team from the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta has spent the last three weeks studying the effects of this summer’s smoky days on residents of western Montana. According to Ellen Leahy, of the Missoula County Health Department, where the CDC set up temporary quarters, the purpose of the study has been to compare the effects of smoke on residents in areas of high exposure like Missoula and Hamilton and areas of moderate exposure like Helena. The team also wanted to establish a control group in either Great Falls or Billings where the smoke was not a problem. The researchers have spent much of their time reviewing hospital records for the time period to see if they can “relate hospital records with continuous air monitoring.”
Leahy explains: “It is an epidemiological study—that is, what did we actually see happening on those smoky days? And the researchers will look for specific effects through the use of diagnostic codes. Mainly they will focus on cardiac and respiratory diagnostic codes.”
In order to establish a control group, the CDC researchers used a meteorologist from the Department of Environmental Quality to analyze the air quality and weather patterns in the cities where hospital admissions for certain conditions were abnormally high. Todd Damrow, Montana’s State Epidemiologist is pleased to see the federal government supplementing the ongoing air quality research already funded by the state: “It was not until Rep. [Rick] Hill sent a letter to [Secretary of Health and Human Services] Donna Shalala, that they were invited … out at no expense to the state and county.”
Damrow expects to receive a preliminary report before the CDC returns to Atlanta this week. They will need some time to evaluate the data they have collected but hope to publish their findings by the end of the year.