Letter: The air we breathe

When we were kids my grandmother used to remind us how lucky we were to live under Colorado blue skies. Azure blue, crystal clear. Sweet mountain air that with every deep breath made you feel vibrantly alive. 

Those days are gone. Lately you risk your health to go outside. Those of us who monitor air quality have seen day after day of Moderate Health Risk readings even on the relatively clear days before the wildfire smoke. Ozone frequently creeps in from the Piceance and Uintah basins, invisible, sometimes accompanied by a haze of particulates. 

Now you can hardly see the hills through the sludge, mostly from wildfires raging out west. It burns your eyes and your nose and your throat. The air monitors read Unhealthy (AirNow). The health advisories say Stay Indoors. Day after day. Weeks on end this summer and the past couple summers. In Denver, no surprise. But not just Denver. Right here in Rio Blanco County. You can’t breathe the air. 

It’s not just a nuisance. It is lethal. Ambient air pollution, especially outdoor air pollution due to PM2.5 (see below), is responsible for about 1 in 5 deaths worldwide (Vohra et al, 2021). About 9 million deaths annually. That’s roughly the sum of the populations of Colorado and Utah and Wyoming combined. Dead from air pollution. Like the air we’ve been breathing. Think about that. (PM2.5 refers to particulate matter in the range 2.5 micrometers diameter, small enough to travel with the air through the respiratory passages and into the lungs.) 

It doesn’t necessarily kill right away, though it can. Fine particulates contribute to respiratory disease, certainly, but also to heart attack, stroke, cancer, diabetes, kidney disease, perinatal mortality, and a whole host of other diseases. Of concern lately, fine particulate pollution increases the risk of dying from covid, for those who are infected, by up to a third (Wu et al, 2020). 

What is to be done? For the time being, stay indoors. Especially those with underlying cardiovascular and respiratory disease, stay indoors. 

There’s no immediate solution, other than to wear a respirator, and when the air clears – maybe not until snow finally douses the fires – we’ll likely soon forget the underlying causes and, given our history, postpone any meaningful action. Human nature. We easily dismiss what’s not right under our noses, or in our noses in this case. (Some call it “adaptability.” Humans adapt. An objective visiting space alien might call it stupidity.) 

But I digress. The underlying causes: 

Climate catastrophe, with unprecedented heat and drought in the American West contributing to the massive wildfires (IPCC, 2021). 

Fossil fuel production and consumption, and too many people on the planet burning those fossil fuels, contributing directly to the particulates and to the climate catastrophe (Vohra, 2021). 

Industrial scale agriculture adding dust and chemical particulates to the atmosphere (Domingo, 2021). 

And each and every one of us adding our share of exhaust of all sorts. 

We won’t fix problems of this scale until we muster the political will and effective leadership. My grandmother’s Colorado blue skies are gone. 

Bob Dorsett, MD



Domingo, Nina et al. 2021. Air-quality related health damages of food production. Proceedings of the National Academies of Science. https://www.pnas.org/content/118/20/e2013637118

EPA Air Quality Monitoring System. https://gispub.epa.gov/airnow/#

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 2021. Climate change 2021: the physical science basis.https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg1/downloads/report/IPCC_AR6_WGI_SPM.pdf

Vohra, Karn et al. 2021. Global mortality from outdoor fine particle pollution. Environmental Research. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0013935121000487

Wu, Xiao et al. 2020. Air pollution linked to higher covid death rates. Harvard Chan School of Public Health. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/hsph-in-the-news/air-pollution-linked-with-higher-covid-19-death-rates/

Special to The Herald Times