Wildfire smoke impacts indoor air quality

The last two years in Seattle were the worst on record for wildfire smoke and its impact on air quality. Smoke-filled air contains fine particles of 2.5 microns in diameter or smaller (PM2.5), which pose a significant health risk because they can move deeply into the lungs. When the air quality outside is “unhealthy for all” according to the EPA because the PM2.5 level is above 55 μg/m3, residents are told to remain inside as much as possible. This occurred 2 days in 2017 and 4 days in 2018. The very young, elderly, and sensitive individuals are particularly at risk to air quality with PM2.5 above 35 μg/m3. However, is the air inside that much better? Even with the windows and doors closed, is the air inside at a healthy level during a smoke event?

Worst ever smoke in Seattle on Aug. 21, 2018

Seattle experiences the worst smoke ever (PM2.5 of 110 μg/m3) on August 21, 2018. Photo courtesy of Dan Jaffe.

Last August during a smoke event in the region, Dan Jaffe was curious about the air quality in his office at UW Bothell and elsewhere on campus. He and Alex Margarito, a recent UW Bothell grad who was then a student in Jaffe’s research group, took measurements in Jaffe’s and other offices on campus, in classrooms, and in Jaffe’s Seattle home. They discovered that the inside air was often bad. On August 22, Jaffe measured PM2.5 of 100 μg/m3 inside his office in Discovery Hall at UW Bothell. “You couldn’t tell that it was that bad inside until you actually took the measurements,” Margarito said. “What we found is that the air inside buildings eventually can get near the same levels as what’s outside. So sitting inside is not going to do that well for you.”

This summer Alex Margarito and Rebecca Rickett, a UW Bothell Biochemistry major, are working with Seattle Parks and Recreation to monitor and analyze indoor and outdoor air quality. This project is part of Seattle’s pilot program in which they installed enhanced filtering at five buildings in the city to offer residents an oasis if a smoke event hits the area. The city has also installed several low-cost sensors to measure air quality in several locations around the city.

Joelle Hammerstad, sustainable operations manager at Seattle Parks and Recreation, is excited that the city is partnering with Dan Jaffe and Margarito and Rickett on this project. “Bigger picture, we’re trying to understand the situation at our facilities when we have poor air quality,” Hammerstad said. “Are the measures effective?”

The city is also thinking about climate change. “This is a critical, pivotal moment where we’re refocusing how we’re thinking about climate change. We’re thinking about resilience, adaption,” Hammerstad said. “How do we help front-line communities get through this—communities that don’t have the resources to easily adapt to a changing climate?”

Read more on the UW Bothell website.