In this crazy, stressful, back to Zoom-school world we are living in, the simplest thing we can do for our own sanity is simply to take a deep breath. A deep breath of fresh air to center ourselves, to find a moment of peace before forging on.
That is, if you can.
For far too many people in this country, even the simple act of taking a nice, deep breath is a challenge. Between a respiratory virus infecting millions of Americans, and wildfire smoke choking half of the country, too many Americans are struggling to breathe.
The first few years I lived in Montana, I grew familiar with what we call “fire season.” The sky would turn a dirty color, and the air smelled like a stale campfire. At its worst, it was annoying.
But after having kids, fire season has gotten exponentially more difficult. Not only has fire season gotten longer and more intense, being a parent during those dark weeks has intensified the gloominess. My three kids bounce off the walls and beg to be allowed to play outside. And day after day, I check the Air Quality Index, and tell them they can’t.
This year, telling them “no” is even more harder than usual. For months, my husband and I have assured the kids that even if they can’t go to school, even if they can’t go to the library or the museum, playing outside during the pandemic is safe. And after a year when I had to tell them they could no longer see their kindergarten teacher, that they would not get to meet their new baby cousin anytime soon, that they couldn’t go to friends’ houses for playdates, I had to take the outdoors away from them too.
“No, we can’t go biking. No, we can’t run around the backyard. No, I can’t let you just sit outside and listen to your audiobook.”(And no, not even if you promise to hold your breath.)” My sons asked me that one multiple times.
Of course, I had my moments of wondering if I was being too strict. Just like in the early days of the virus, when we didn’t know if we could go to playgrounds or if we had to bleach our groceries, moms today still have relatively little information about the effects of wildfire smoke on children’s lung health.
But what we do know is discouraging.
Children, the elderly, people with heart and lung diseases, and people with asthma are especially at risk for problems caused by wildfire smoke. Smoke inhalation can reduce lung function, cause asthma attacks, and increase the risk of blood clots, heart attack, and stroke.
A recent study out of the University of Montana provides new insight on the health affects of smoke. The study found that higher daily concentrations of fine particulate matter in the air is related an increase in the number of influenza cases the following winter.
While the affects of a bad wildfire season on COVID-19 cases remains to be seen, researchers are concerned. Global studies have shown a relationship between fine particulate matter caused by pollution and an increase in COVID-19 deaths. And for communities of color who have historically been exposed to higher rates of pollution due to environmental racism, wildfire smoke can potentially further exacerbate health disparities.
A few days ago, the skies turned from end-of-the-world brown to dark grey. We cheered as the rain fell, and spent the rest of the weekend enjoying the blue sky.
I breathed in deep.
But I know it’s not over. If we don’t address our climate crisis, the fires will burn hotter and longer. Our skies will disappear more and more. And our children will struggle to breathe.
This year, I am voting for justice in every breath – for our right to breathe.
Breathe deep Montana.