Air quality alert in place for Malheur County through the weekend

The sun reflects off the surface of irrigation ponds near the Malheur River on a smoky Friday, Aug. 13. The Air Quality Index was over 150 – unhealthy for everyone. (AUSTIN JOHNSON/The Enterprise)

As if another heat wave wasn’t enough, now there is a seriously unhealthy haze over the valleys and hills of Malheur County. The National Weather Service office in Boise issued an air quality alert that will extend through the afternoon of Monday, Aug. 16.

According to the BreezoMeter, an air quality data monitoring company, the air quality index in Ontario and the surrounding communities will range from 150 to over 200 through most of the weekend.

Any number above 150 is considered unhealthy, according to the federal Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.

The weather service forecast that temperatures in Malheur County will remain at or above 100 degrees through Monday. Ontario reached 106 on Thursday, Aug. 12.

What is making the air unhealthy are the fine particles from wildfires. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, it’s a smoky cocktail of a thousand different nasty compounds like black carbon, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds and cancerous hydrocarbons like aldehyde.

These fine particles, labeled as PM2.5 for being smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter, are 30 times smaller in width than a human hair and can seep into the bloodstream once inhaled through the lungs.

Particles like pollen and most dust can be coughed or sneezed out of the lungs, but PM.25 is different. Once breathed in, it stays in.

“There really is no ‘safe’ level of exposure to particulate matter,” said Dr. Kate Sutherland, a pulmonologist with the Saint Alphonsus Medical Group in Boise.

When the air is this bad it is unhealthy for everyone, but the most vulnerable groups include children, the elderly, pregnant women and those with cardiovascular or lung diseases.

And there is now research saying that people with Covid are more likely to die from the disease if they live in areas with higher levels of air population, according to a nationwide study from the Harvard School of Public Health.

To protect yourself during the smoke:

*Frequently check the current AQI levels for your area on Oregon’s Smoke Information Blog, airnow.gov or by downloading free apps like BreezoMeter or OregonAIR.

*Avoid strenuous activities outside and stay inside with the windows closed when possible.

*If you go outside, wear a N95 mask or P100 respiratory. An ordinary Covid mask won’t filter out those fine particles from the wildfires.

*Use high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters in your air conditioning system and/or portable air purifiers.

*Check on friends and family most vulnerable to unhealthy air quality.


HEAT WAVE: Understanding how heat affects the body

HEAT WAVE: Outdoor workers in Malheur County adjust to dangerous heat

Tips for cooling down at home

News tip? Contact multimedia journalist Austin Johnson: [email protected] or (541) 784-7151

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