Whether you’re an elite athlete or a casual hiker, enjoying Colorado’s outdoors is part of the lifestyle. Yet as air pollution increases, it’s getting harder to get outside in the first place. 

Colorado’s Front Range has long struggled with poor air quality. In recent years, Denver’s insidious brown cloud and ground-level ozone along most of the I-25 corridor have become so bad the state now holds a failing grade with the Environmental Protection Agency. Needless to say, that’s not a report card you want to get an F on, and health concerns are already high accordingly.

Yet what was once an issue that primarily affected the most populous regions of the state now threatens to impact all Coloradans. As climate change accelerates the intensity and size of wildfires across North America, dangerous levels of soot and ash are more frequently blanketing our skies. The most recent event saw smoke settle in from western Canada and linger across much of the state for days, prompting repeated air quality health advisories by Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment. In the process, millions of Coloradans were all but trapped inside until the smoke passed.

That smoke event may seem relatively small, but it likely caused more harm than most of us realize. According to one air quality monitoring site, the singular event sparked particulate matter levels at my home that led to 20% of the past 30 days exceeding the World Health Organization guidelines for short-term exposure. This included at least one day with levels six times higher than recommended, and the monthly average exposure exceeded the recommended annual guidelines by more than three times.

Studies have long shown that excess exposure to particulate matter carries huge health impacts. But more recently, studies have also begun to find correlations between even short-term exposure to wildfire smoke as being linked to increases in mortality rates. In last week’s smoke event, the air quality monitoring site issued a warning that staying in my location for a long time may pose a risk to health, with the most likely impacts including a reduction of lung function and increased rates of lung cancer and cardiopulmonary mortality.

Such steep health risks associated with wildfire smoke make learning to avoid it part of Colorado’s new normal. Especially during the summer and fall, checking the air quality index has become as routine as checking the temperature or rain forecast. Between the state’s propensity for wildfires and its central location and unique topography, it’s entirely likely that we’ll continue to take on more than our fair share of burned particles. In other words, Coloradans should steel themselves for more days stuck inside, even if it’s sunny out. 

This is especially true for those in the Front Range. While short-term smoke exposure poses a health risk for all Coloradans, the combination of existing poor air quality and increasing wildfires takes concerns about air quality on the Front Range to a whole new level. As both the concentration and length of exposure to particulate matter are correlated with increased negative health outcomes, adding smoke to already heavily polluted areas is like pouring gas on a fire. And the health impacts could be disastrous if left unmitigated.

It’s for this reason that efforts to clean up Colorado’s existing air pollution are even more critical than ever. As wildfire smoke is likely to burden the state more heavily in the coming years, it’s all the more important to quickly reduce our base-level pollution. This alone could as much as halve dangerous air quality levels during smoke events, and reduce both the concentration and number of days Coloradans are exposed to unsafe air.

Of course, such actions don’t address the short-term smoke exposure that all Coloradans face, and in this sense, we’ve essentially passed the point of no return. While better efforts to mitigate future climate change will help prevent the situation from worsening, stopping the massive fires entirely is no longer a readily available option. At least for now, this means the best solution is to accept more days spent inside alongside efforts to improve building seals, air intake and air filtration to lessen the health risks.

Still, although there is no magic wand to reverse decades of bad choices, there are things we can do to make it better. The most obvious solutions include more rapidly reducing transportation-based emissions, increasing demands to crack down on major emission sources such as Suncor and overall efforts to reduce our state’s carbon footprint.

Yet there are also more creative ways we might expedite reducing air pollution. For example, many places internationally are now installing mass-scale outdoor air purifiers to help cut emissions. In China, huge air filtration towers are being built in highly polluted areas. In Germany, popular vehicle throughways are being lined with massive filtering cubes to target emissions at the source. There are even efforts to attach filtration devices to cars directly.

Perhaps the biggest change we could make is to shift working culture to accommodate more air-friendly practices. If we learned anything during COVID-19, it’s that more work can be done remotely. While we don’t need to be fully remote, more companies permitting employees to spend fewer days in the office during the summer could go a long way toward bringing down pollution.

Coloradans like to be outside. It’s who we are. But poor air quality is threatening our way of life and making it more dangerous to live and recreate here. This should concern everyone, and it’s past time to come together to ensure we have cleaner air for Coloradans to breathe.

Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado. Trish can be found on Twitter @trish_zornio

Trish Zornio

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Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado. Trish can be found on Twitter @trish_zornio