DENVER — Skies over the Front Range are choked with smoke from Western wildfires, limiting visibility and hurting air quality, which is causing a variety of impacts on Coloradans.
"I really do notice a difference in my breathing with weather changes," Steff Lebsack said. "There's not a ton of adults like me living with Bronchopulmonary Dysplasia."
BPD is a chronic lung disease that usually affects newborns, but Lebsack never outgrew her diagnosis from infancy.
"My doctor told me, 'I can see why you were diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. That's not correct. I can see why you were diagnosed with fibrosis. That's also not correct. It's BPD.' After the two and a half weeks, they determined it was the BPD that I never grew out of," Lebsack said.
During weeks when much of the Front Range has air quality advisories, she's reminded of her condition.
"On days when the air quality is particularly not favorable, if I don't have to be outside, then I just simply don't go outside," she said.
Other times, she uses a non-invasive ventilator to go outdoors during low air quality.
"To others I say, always have your medication with you because air quality can have an effect on that. Don't minimize your condition," she said.
While air quality affects every person differently, health and science experts say there are things every person can do to minimize health impacts.
"I think the best way to be prepared is to take your daily asthma medications very consistently. If you're on a daily medication, make sure you have a rescue inhaler that still has medicine and it is not expired," said Dr. Peter Cvietusa, an allergy and asthma specialist at Kaiser Permanente.
Cvietusa said Kaiser has specific systems in place to monitor patients with chronic lung conditions.
"We have a system where if they've requested a refill for a rescue inhaler within the last two months, which is a pretty short duration, we'll reach out to them to see if they're starting to have some trouble with their asthma. We also have a reminder system around their daily asthma medications, too," he said.
This week, the poor visibility in Denver prompted Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to advise people with chronic lung conditions to avoid long stays outside.
"On days with lots of wildfire smoke like we've been having in the last few days, the biggest thing that is concerning is the small particulate matter — little pieces of stuff floating around in the atmosphere," said Alex Huffman, a professor and aerosol scientist at the University of Denver. "That's what you're breathing in and gets deep in your lungs. It bothers your lungs."
Huffman said people can get protection in their homes, too.
"Interestingly, the particles that are in the air are very similar in size to the type of particles that we've been breathing out during COVID, so the solutions are very similar," he said. Wear a nice fitting, tight-fitting mask and put some filtration in your house, such as HEPA filter."