As seen from Mukilteo, a boat passes as the Washington state ferry Tokitae heads into smog on its way to Clinton on Monday. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

As seen from Mukilteo, a boat passes as the Washington state ferry Tokitae heads into smog on its way to Clinton on Monday. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

For tens of thousands, bad air is more than inconvenient

In Snohomish County as elsewhere, wildfire smoke poses a serious danger to people with lung ailments.

EVERETT — Poor air quality has returned to the Puget Sound area with a brownish-white blanket of pollution and an array of health risks.

It will be common across parts of the Pacific Northwest this week as winds push smoke from surrounding wildfires into the region.

Air quality alerts are in effect for much of Washington through 5 p.m. Wednesday, according to the National Weather Service.

In Snohomish, King, Pierce and Kitsap counties, smoke Monday reached the designated “unhealthy” level that triggers warnings even for people who are fit, the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency said. Everyone is urged to stay indoors as much as possible.

On Monday afternoon, Carrie Nyssen, a regional American Lung Association advocacy director, checked the Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Now air quality app for Snohomish County.

“It’s horrible up in Everett,” she said. “When the air is this bad, it affects everyone.”

Air pollution can be a particular concern to sensitive groups such as older adults, children and those with respiratory conditions. But high levels of pollution can affect anyone, causing coughing, itchy eyes, irritated sinuses, headaches, chest pain and fast heartbeats.

Washington state has nearly 1 million people who suffer from some form of lung disease, according to the American Lung Association.

In Snohomish County, the smoky conditions can be challenging for more than 13,000 children and an estimated 59,000 adults with asthma, as well as those with lung disease, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Nyssen said parents should be mindful that children can be especially vulnerable, with 80 percent of lung development occurring after they are born.

It was too early to gauge the effect of the smoky conditions for patients being seen at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett on Monday. Anecdotally, it seemed to play a role in some visits to the emergency room.

“This morning alone we’ve had several respiratory patients with the only clear trigger being the smoke,” hospital spokeswoman Lisa Daly said. “There aren’t a lot of other triggers out there.”

Nyssen said wildfire season has become longer and more intense than it was two or three decades ago with wetter winters providing more fuel in the forest followed by drier and hotter summers. This stretch of wildfire smoke is similar to one last August when a stubborn haze smothered the region for more than a week, blotting from view mountains and the waterfront.

As bad as it seemed in parts of the Puget Sound region, it was much worse in Eastern Washington.

Spokane and later Chelan had the worst air quality in the nation Monday morning, according to the EPA.

The air quality index, which is on a 1-to-500 scale, measured 382 in Spokane about 6 a.m.

The Spokesman-Review newspaper reported that the 24-hour average air quality index on Sunday reached 257, the worst since records began to be kept in 1999. The previous worst was measured last year on Sept. 7.

By comparison, air quality in Everett on Monday afternoon was measured at 165, meaning it was considered unhealthy.

Most of the smoke is from wildfires in British Columbia and the Cascade Mountains. An air quality alert was in place across Eastern Washington and north Idaho. “The good news is that observation sites over the interior of British Columbia are showing improved visibility since yesterday,” the National Weather Service said.

But there’s plenty of smoke from Washington fires to worry about. “Wind flow will turn more easterly on Tuesday,” the weather service said. “This will bring in more locally sourced smoke from fires along the east side of the Cascades.”

Nyssen of the American Lung Association had several tips for people concerned, including staying inside, closing windows and drinking lots of water to moisten the airwaves.

They should always monitor air quality, including through the EPA’s Air Now site, which also can be found at airnow.gov.

They can also contact the American Lung Association at 1-800-586-4872.

Some clean air agencies also say N95 or N100 rated masks can help protect some people from air pollution. These masks are usually available at hardware and home repair stores.

A Stage 1 burn ban also is in effect for the Puget Sound region. Among other restrictions, that means no charcoal barbecues, campfires or bonfires.

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; stevick@heraldnet.com.

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