Crossing Montana’s Mountains to Clear the Air

In the beginning of September, Montana continued to face one of the worst fire seasons in the state’s history. As thousands of firefighters and hundreds of Montana National Guard members battled the wildfires, another team raced across the state, comprised of volunteers and employees of the American Lung Association and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Montana (BCBSMT) who wanted to help protect the health of elementary school children in Montana.

Impact on Schools

 Florence-Carlton school officials noted that the air quality from the fires was unlike anything they had ever seen. Even the school’s hallways were smoky. In other Montana schools, restless children were being kept in from recess day after day.  Many were wondering if the air quality was better in the school gym or outside, or if the windows could be opened in classrooms without air conditioners.

A Working Partnership

BCBSMT was ready to help. As part of an ongoing partnership, the company had recently worked with the American Lung Association in Montana to deliver ten high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) air filter units to Florence Elementary School. The Enhancing Care for Children with Asthma partnership began in Montana in 2016 to deliver training and resources to health care clinics serving large numbers of kids with asthma. Continuing that work, BCBSMT and the American Lung Association in Montana came together quickly to develop a plan for helping school children. A list was formed to service schools based on those closest to the fires and the schools that faced continued exposure to smoke. Complex logistics were navigated to bring an additional 150 air filter units to schools across the state.

A Long and Winding Road

But it is not an easy road in Montana. While Montana is big and beautiful, the towns are far apart, the mountain paths are winding and long. Going from Missoula to West Glacier to Eureka and several more stops along the way to Lincoln, the team drove more than 600 miles across a huge geographic area in just over 48 hours to deliver the air filters.

A Special Expertise

 Dr. Marcy Ballman from the American Lung Association’s Montana office led this effort. Just a few years ago, Dr. Ballman completed her dissertation at the University of Montana. She had been working with families in homes with wood smoke exposure from wood stoves. Her doctorate in toxicology focused on the study of indoor coarse particulate matter that can settle in lungs. Responding to this health crisis, Dr. Ballman was surprised that her very exact and specific expertise was called upon to help the school children of Montana.

The Harmful Effects

The smoke from the wildfires can contain the smallest version of ash that falls from a fire. Children in these areas are exposed to tiny particles that can get into the lungs. These particles are respiratory irritants and exposures can cause coughing, phlegm, wheezing and difficulty breathing. Even healthy people may have respiratory symptoms, reduced lung function, and pulmonary inflammation. Particulate matter can also affect the body’s immune system and make it more difficult to remove inhaled foreign material from the lung, such as pollen and bacteria. The main public health concern from even short-term exposure to smoke is from the exposure to particulate matter. A fan with a HEPA filter pulls the air in and pushes it out while filtering the particles out of the air.

Helping Montana Families Breathe Easier

“While many Montana families had been evacuated from their homes, every day they continued to go to work in poor air-quality conditions and children still show up in classrooms where you can literally smell and taste the smoke," said BCBSMT employee Randi Heigh, who along with her coworkers in the public relations department played a key role in the HEPA filter project. "This was such an important mission because these kids and their families were living with this day in and day out all summer long.” Randi helped her team  pack up and deliver the HEPA filters. Trading needles for filters, the team deployed its mobile Care Van®, which is usually used to provide no- or low-cost immunizations to children and their families in rural and underserved areas, as well as central locations in populated areas. Care Van Administrator Jamey Petersen played a pivotal role and was at Randi's side throughout the entire project.

A Determined Team

The many miles and long hours did not deter Randi. She says, “My passion is community outreach, and I knew there were displaced children and families with asthma and allergies that were struggling due to the extreme conditions. This project immediately helps kids in the classroom by allowing them to focus on their studies, rather than the ability to breathe. But this project will also have a lasting impact on the lives of families with children who have chronic conditions affected by poor air quality.”

Dr. Ballman reflects on her experience, she says, “It has been a great opportunity to experience how BCBSMT and the American Lung Association can find new ways to partner together. We have so many shared goals and it has been a pleasure working with the BCBSMT team. I look forward to more collaborations and continuing to provide education and resources to people across Montana.”

To learn more about the partnership between the American Lung Association and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Montana visit our Taking On Asthma page!

Sources: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/07/us/montana-wildfire-drought.html?mcubz=3&_r=0 https://www3.epa.gov/ttnamti1/files/ambient/smoke/wildgd.pdf http://www.kpax.com/story/36275264/students-can-breath-easier-with-air-filters-on-the-way

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