Wildfire caused air pollution in Las Vegas to reach nine times the healthy limit

Members of Congress say wealthy neighborhoods have more air quality tracking devices than poorer communities

By: - June 6, 2022 5:00 am

Smoke from the Hermits Peak – Calf Canyon fires billows behind the Las Vegas Carnegie Public Library on April 29, 2022. (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source NM)

As harsh winds spread the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire across more than 100,000 acres and authorities ordered residents to evacuate at the beginning of May, wildfire smoke filled the air with pollution that went far beyond healthy limits for 10 straight days.

A consumer-grade air quality monitor installed on 8th Street in Las Vegas, New Mexico recorded a daily average of 142 micrograms of fine particulate matter per cubic meter of air (µg/m³) over the course of Sunday, May 1.

That is nine times the healthy limit for how much a person should breathe in these smoke particles, which is an average of 15 micrograms per cubic meter of air over a 24-hour period, according to World Health Organization guidelines.

There are significant health risks associated with getting exposed to such high amounts of the particles, including impacts on our cardiovascular and respiratory systems, as well as other organs.

The average daily pollution in the air around the sensor stayed many times above the limit until it finally returned to a healthy level on May 10.

Fine particles in the air around the sensor reached over 700 µg/m³ at one point early in the morning on Tuesday, May 3. That’s extremely high but not the daily average used to measure exposure that might cause health concerns.

Particles in wildfire smoke are small pieces of burned or unburned fuels, or organic material small enough to stay suspended in the atmosphere for a really long time, said Alex Huffman, an aerosol scientist and associate professor of chemistry at the University of Denver.

When you take a deep breath, you’re bringing in those particles along with the gas molecules. The oxygen and nitrogen come in and go back out, but the particles are large enough to get stuck in your lungs, he said.

There are three expensive reference-grade air quality sensors in Santa Fe and six reference-grade sensors in Albuquerque, according to the open source map of sensors maintained by OpenAQ, a nonprofit open source free data aggregator that gathers much of the world’s air quality data in one place. 

Several are also located in the Four Corners, one in Bloomfield, another at Navajo Lake and one near Chaco Canyon. There is also a cluster around Las Cruces and another at Carlsbad Caverns National Park.

But in the area near the massive Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire, you can only find one low-cost sensor in the city of Las Vegas, and no sensors at all in the town of Mora, which has been the hardest hit by the fires and evacuations.

Congress must ensure that tools used to inform the public about wildfire risks are accurate, equitable, and serve diverse communities, Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) and five other senators from western states wrote on Thursday in a letter to the Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies.

While President Biden’s proposed budget calls for $12.7 million that would help EPA improve wildfire and air quality communication while also expanding local smoke monitoring, lawmakers are seeking an additional $20 million to expand high quality devices “in new areas that do not currently have adequate monitoring capabilities.”

“As with many environmental hazards, wildfire smoke pollution disproportionately affects low-income and historically marginalized communities,” the lawmakers wrote.

Reference-grade sensors can cost between $30,000 and $50,000, said Russ Biggs, the lead software engineer at OpenAQ and an Albuquerque resident. They also have high operating costs to maintain and calibrate, he said.

They are so expensive because they are used as regulatory tools by the EPA, Biggs said. According to the map, most of New Mexico’s high grade monitors are on federally operated land. 

Low-cost, consumer-grade air quality sensors like the one in Las Vegas cost between $200 and $300, Biggs said.

He said the map is growing because environmental justice and community groups have started installing networks of low-cost sensors in order to advocate for cleaner air.

“Because if you don’t have any sort of monitoring in your community, how do you make a case that you’re not breathing healthy air?” Biggs said.

EPA uses a network of sensors to track air quality during fires, and along with the U.S. Forest Service publishes the data on the AirNow Fire and Smoke Map, which has become a resource for New Mexicans looking for information on smoke during the 2022 wildfire season.

“These monitors, however, are currently concentrated in more affluent communities, despite the fact that the dangers of wildfire smoke and poor air quality are not limited to these areas,” the lawmakers wrote.

Luján’s office provided Source New Mexico with a map it created showing that air quality monitors installed in New Mexico are concentrated in areas with higher incomes, while there are almost no monitors installed in the poorer areas of the state.

The lawmakers’ letter cites CDC research showing that exposure to air pollutants like particles in wildfire smoke can cause inflammation, alter immune function, irritate the lungs and increase susceptibility to respiratory infections.

Other studies have shown that wildfire smoke can increase the risk of catching COVID-19. Researchers found that even short-term exposure to particles from wildfire smoke increased COVID-19 cases and deaths during the 2020 wildfire season in Oregon, California and Washington.

“As wildfires become increasingly frequent and destructive, smoke will become an ever more present reality in our communities as well as those across the country,” the lawmakers wrote. “It is critical that we be proactive in ensuring that our monitoring systems are well equipped to equitably protect public health from the hazardous effects of wildfire smoke.”

The New Mexico Department of Health’s Environmental Epidemiological team tracks air quality and publishes alerts through the state’s Environment Department.

But New Mexico state officials do not track indoor air quality or require masking or air ventilation or air filtration at disaster recovery centers established for people fleeing from wildfires, Source New Mexico’s reporting shows.

“As separate entities, each shelter administering organizations have their own operational policies and procedures; for details on a specific shelter, please contact the administering organization,” DOH spokesperson Jodi McGinnis Porter said in a written statement.

N95 masks offer the most protection from air particles and airborne illnesses, McGinnis Porter said.

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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.