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Our lungs are where climate change and COVID-19 intersect

Unused N95s
Jered Ebenreck
Jered Ebenreck
Unused N95s

As wildfires scorch the drought-stricken forests of New Mexico, Source New Mexico’s Austin Fisher has been helping connect the dots between fire, climate change, and COVID19, and he names one important nexus: Our Lungs.  KUNM’s Jered Ebenreck spoke with Austin.

AUSTIN FISHER: There's a growing consensus among scientists that air pollution in general, including wildfire smoke, actually exacerbates respiratory illnesses like pneumonia and acute bronchitis by impairing the body's immune response. A team of Harvard researchers found that even short-term exposure to wildfire smoke increased COVID-19 cases and deaths during the 2020 wildfire season in Oregon, California, and Washington.

In very practical terms, the same things that protect you from Coronavirus, also protects you from wildfire smoke -- high quality masks like N95s, or air filters that can filter COVID out of the indoor air in a building.

KUNM: COVID relief funds had been allocated to get some of the indoor air circulation up to code. And yet, we do see that due in part to challenges of staffing at the state level of implementation and regulation that not necessarily all of our indoor spaces have the necessary filtration

FISHER: That's right. The state is tracking the spending and there's a very helpful dashboard that shows the data of that spending. However, there is no database in the state of New Mexico that actually tracks whether or not that spending has gone to filtration or air ventilation. There's no actual easy place for teachers, parents, students, other members of the public to find information about what their local school districts are actually doing.

And so, I brought this to the Finance and Operations Director of the New Mexico Public Education Department, Antonio Ortiz. He said we don't have the staff or capacity at the department to go out there and verify every single building, what they're doing.

KUNM: This also points to, so we know we have the tools (95 Masks, proper HVAC filtration systems) but these tools are not necessarily widely available. How does this then cross back over to New Mexicans facing both COVID-19 and now wildfire evacuation responses, wildfire smoke exposure, both indoor and outdoor?

FISHER: We are in sort of a double crisis mode right now. I am fully confident that the people responding to the fires are doing everything they can but there's no public messaging from any authorities in New Mexico or elsewhere that is including COVID-19 as part of this new emergency. There are huge amounts of resources going into evacuating people, into providing them food and water while they are being evacuated, into actually fighting the fires. But none of that public messaging includes the fact that everybody out there is breathing in this wildfire smoke.

I published a story with an aerosol scientist who actually loves the area around Las Vegas, and has spent a lot of his childhood there. And he's worried that there might not be even the awareness out there that you can protect yourself from wildfire smoke with a high-quality mask. He reminded me that the federal government distributed these N95s to pharmacies across the country. So, I called the pharmacy in Las Vegas, the one pharmacy in the town, that received these masks, and they said they were out. That was on April 4. The staff at the pharmacy said there are very long lines because so many people are trying to get supplies during this crisis.

KUNM: Thank you, Austin Fisher from Source New Mexico for joining me today. I really appreciate it, be safe.

Fisher: Thanks so much for having me


Jered Ebenreck has volunteered in community radio for 30 years--from college radio in Maryland to KGNU, Boulder to WOMR, Provincetown to KUNM in 2004. Jered did Public Health reporting and analysis for KUNM from 2021-2022, while pursuing a graduate program in Public Health at UNM, with an emphasis on Social Ecology. Jered, with the help of his partner, is a caregiver for his mother with Alzheimer's.
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