Colorado State University is working to address the health impacts of wildfire smoke, one of the many challenges of the devastating wildfires occurring in our state and around the country. CSU researchers will receive nearly $1 million from the Environmental Protection Agency to expand air quality monitoring in communities impacted by wildfires and improve communication of health risks from smoke exposure. Researchers will work with community partners throughout Colorado to add low-cost air quality monitors in places that aren’t currently monitored. They will create real-time, high-resolution maps to help people understand air pollution in their community and make decisions to minimize smoke exposure.
Emily Fischer, associate professor of atmospheric science, will lead an interdisciplinary team of scientists from the Departments of Atmospheric Science, Journalism and Media Communication, and Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences. The grant is one of 12 research projects funded through the EPA Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program to develop interventions and communication strategies to reduce wildfire smoke exposure and the associated health risks. “Studies have shown that wildfires in the Western U.S. are likely to continue with increasing regularity, so we should be prepared for that in the future,” said Jeff Pierce, an investigator on the project and atmospheric science professor. “We’re hoping people can make choices to protect their health with the extra information we will provide.”
Fischer, Pierce, and Bonne Ford, who are atmospheric scientists, and Sheryl Magzamen, an epidemiologist, have worked together on previous studies on the health impacts of wildfire smoke. They found that smoke was associated with increased hospitalizations for asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and some cardiovascular health outcomes. For this project, the researchers will build on the citizen science based PurpleAir Network, a series of low-cost sensors that detect fine particles in the air. Inhaling this particulate matter, called PM 2.5, is the biggest immediate health threat from wildfire smoke. The sensors will connect wirelessly to web portals, so citizens can access data on PM 2.5 concentrations in real time.
CSU will partner with the City of Fort Collins to pilot the program this summer, before rolling it out to other Colorado communities. Collecting air quality data consistently and continuously is only half the battle. The project’s goal is also to protect public health through improved communication. The study will investigate how people react to different types of communication and how to improve public messaging.