ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Stanford University Medical Center doctors gave Alex Lee a parting gift at the end of his heart operations earlier this year: surgeon's masks.
They knew Lee, 19, would be returning home to Fairbanks, Alaska, and gave him the masks to protect himself from air polluted with suspended particulate that can cause irregular heartbeat or a heart attack. Diagnosed with Down syndrome, Lee is not in position to take his doctors' stronger suggestion — moving away from his hometown air.
"They gave us a box of masks and said, 'Stay out of it the best you can," said his mother, Patrice Lee.
The young, the elderly and the weakened in Fairbanks risk accelerated health problems every winter because of particulate. Much of it comes from wood smoke produced by homeowners trying to cut their fuel bills. Municipal officials say natural gas is the long-term solution, but that is years away. The Environmental Protection Agency has taken notice and says it will impose sanctions and a federal attainment plan in two years if state and municipal officials don't come up with an acceptable one of their own.
Lee and her son do their best to avoid breathing air that ranks among the dirtiest in the country.
"The only option for us was to stay holed up here in the house with HEPA filters and doing the best we can not to breathe the air," Lee said.
Air problems in Fairbanks, Alaska's second largest community at around 97,000 people, start with geography. Temperatures every winter reach 40 to 50 below zero. Fairbanks and nearby North Pole are partially surrounded by hills that create a bowl effect, said Cindy Heil, an air planner for the state Department of Environmental Conservation. In a meteorological phenomenon known as an inversion, cold air along the ground can be capped by a layer of warmer air, trapping emissions.
Carbon monoxide used to be the main concern. A vehicle inspection and maintenance program and newer cars solved that.
The issue now is particulate, the mix of solid particles and liquid droplets ranging from dust and soot to microscopic pieces.
A human hair is about 70 micrometers in diameter. The most dangerous particles, according the EPA, are less than 10 micrometers.
"They get breathed deeper in the lungs and cause more problems," said Kate Kelly, the EPA Region 10 director of air, waste and toxics. Research ties particulate to pollution to heart attacks, decreased lung function and premature death in people with heart or lung disease.
National air quality standards allow no more than 35 micrograms of particulate per cubic meter averaged over 24 hours. On Nov. 26-28, a monitor at North Pole recorded 24-hour averages of fine particle matter — 2.5 micrometers in diameter or less — at 152, 167 and 151 micrograms per cubic meter, making for "very unhealthy" designation. At least one hour during the three-day period spiked at 245. Those same days, readings at a Fairbanks monitor averaged 71, 58 and 82, an assessment that rated only "unhealthy."