Lee Hannah 

News flash: Boise's air quality went down the tubes this week. But a recent Boise State study shows that even on days when the smoke isn't in your face, air quality fluctuations can have dramatic effects on health in the Treasure Valley. Lee Hannah, an epidemiologist and faculty member in the Department of Community and Environmental Health, said her team's research also showed that doctor visits go up when air quality goes down. Their data came from Blue Cross of Idaho, Regence Blue Shield and Medicaid, but was also cross-referenced with air quality monitor data from the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality. All those increased doctor visits, Hannah said, lead to more costs for society. On a recent smoggy day, BW asked Hannah about why air quality matters when it's not smoky, why she's not riding her horse much these days, and whether you should go running when the haze is on.

BW: At first glace, these seem like fairly obvious results.

Clearly our intent with this study was not to prove that bad air is not good for you. What we were really interested in was, the [Environmental Protection Agency] sets guidelines for air quality. And there's some general belief in the public that as long as we don't exceed EPA standards, then we're OK.

Even if the air quality is fairly good, and it gets 10 parts per million worse, we see increased [doctor] visits. Even at safe levels, there are health effects of bad air.

Bad air costs money. It costs money in higher health insurance premiums. It costs tax dollars. We looked at Medicaid visits. Those are paid for by you and me.

If we could spend money on things that made air quality better, like public transportation people would actually use, we would kill two birds with one stone.

Of the transportation alternatives, do you see any silver bullets to help fight air pollution?

Here in the Treasure Valley, we're really facing the fact that there is no silver bullet any more. There is no easy answer. The policy will have to contain elements of emissions control, elements of public transportation, elements of agriculture and business issues. It's not easy. If it were easy, I think people would be willing to make changes. Also, our geography lends itself to air pollution.

That's true; I spoke with someone today who said that on the highway east of Boise, you look down into the Boise area and it's a sea of smoke.

People tend to use that as an excuse: Well, we have poor air because of our geography. And that's true. Cities like Denver and Salt Lake City, that are down in valleys, set down by mountains, tend to have accumulations of pollution. But I think that can't be our excuse.

What about your study surprised you?

We actually found bigger incidents of heart attacks in the days following bad air quality days.

Our study is unique: We're seeing health effects in a younger, potentially healthier population. So clearly, bad air affects a younger, healthier population.

I want to make sure people understand that our results for instances of athsma showed that we have a 3 to 4 percent increase per 10 part-per-million increase [in air quality].

So what about those of us who got tired of waiting it out, and went running on a bad air day?

We're just now beginning to figure out some of the mechanisms for why bad air contributes to bad health. They're foreign bodies. Your body says, "Let's get rid of this." And goes into an immune response. What they've found is that when we breathe it in, your body has to respond to the particles that you breathe in and are in the airways. That's part of the mechanism for why people have heart attacks.

The answer is, yeah, you probably shouldn't run outside on a day like this. If you want to go exercise, you should go to a gym. It's not in your best interest to breathe that stuff deep into your lungs.

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