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Researchers study wildfire smoke in Idaho nursing homes

A silhouette of trees crosses a red smoky sky and sun.
Cian Fenton
Flickr Creative Commons

Two years ago, public health researchers put air quality sensors at four skilled nursing facilities across Idaho to detect wildfire smoke.

2020 was a record-setting wildfire year for the West, especially California, and the smoke from those fires made its way to Idaho.

“Some facilities did really well, even when there was an outdoor event, to keep the air relatively clean," said Luke Montrose, an assistant professor of public health and population science at Boise State University. "Other facilities were less so able to do that.”

Elderly adults are particularly vulnerable to the small particles in smoke because they have higher rates of pre-existing heart and lung conditions. Montrose wants to understand how smoke is affecting Idaho's older populations, including those in skilled nursing facilities.

Data from the sensors his team placed at a few facilities told Montrose that all four of the buildings' indoor air was affected by smoke outside, but some had higher particulate levels than others.

A new grant from the Clinical and Translational Research Infrastructure Network will help the team, which includes the university’s Center for the Study on Aging, further analyze that data. It could also help them understand how the built environment, such as HVAC systems, and human behavior, opening and closing windows and doors during a smoke event, could affect indoor air quality.

“There are things we think we can learn from the facilities that do a good job that we could then use to help the other facilities do better," Montrose said.

Montrose thinks the findings could apply to other buildings with vulnerable populations, including schools.

Another part of the project is communicating the findings with skilled nursing facilities.

"We did not want to blame the victim," said Sarah Toevs, the director of the Center for the Study of Aging. "The whole assisted living [and] nursing home world is one of the most heavily regulated industries in the country."

However, there are few guidelines related to indoor air. The research team is working to help facilities understand changes in real-time air quality data.

Some of the collaborative work was put on hold due to COVID-19, which has severely affected Idaho's long-term care facilities and their residents. But Montrose said the pandemic brought a heightened awareness about indoor air quality to the industry, and many of the interventions to keep residents safe from the virus apply to wildfire smoke, too.

"Whether they want to or not, they're going to need to begin to think how wildfire smoke is going to impact their residents — because it will," he said.

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen

Copyright 2022 Boise State Public Radio

I cover environmental issues, outdoor recreation and local news for Boise State Public Radio. Beyond reporting, I contribute to the station’s digital strategy efforts and enjoy thinking about how our work can best reach and serve our audience. The best part of my job is that I get to learn something new almost every day.

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