In light of increased pasture burning during March and into this month, air quality was a topic of discussion during Monday morning’s Riley County Commission meeting.
Both Emergency Management Director Pat Collins and Public Health Emergency Preparedness Coordinator Jason Orr provided information and suggestions to commissioners on ways to address the issue.
Collins said much of the recent smoke has come from surrounding counties and not just Riley County, and that the county’s current burn-permit system – implemented in 1999 – has been effective.
The county’s burn-permit system, Collins said, is more lenient to property owners who request to burn 20 acres and up for agricultural use.
“We’ve always used that to regulate our burning,” he said. “The smoke from a week ago Saturday and last Saturday wasn’t a lot of our smoke.
“Friday, when the ashes were falling out of the sky, most of that was from a different county around us.”
When it comes to gauging the specific air quality the county has experienced during this burn season, Collins said there’s no way to really know – because the county doesn’t have an air quality monitoring station.
“In general, the agricultural burnings are a benefit to farmers and Fort Riley uses it for fire-prevention,” Orr said. “The pollutants produced by the fires are not highly concerning at this point, according to readings throughout Kansas.
“The KDHE (Kansas Department of Health and Environment) person I spoke to in our region said there hadn’t been any overages according to the EPA guidelines.”
Orr did say that didn’t mean the public shouldn’t be cautious.
“There’s still some troubling pollutants (from pasture burnings),” he said. “The most worrisome pollutants are particulates. The measuring stations measure two different sizes: those that are 10 microns or less – the width of a human hair is about 70 microns – and those that are 5 microns or less. So they’re teeny-tiny.
“These particulates are particularly bad because they can get into the lungs, and the ultra-fine ones can get into the bloodstream.
“Additionally, ozone can be made from the pollutants in the smoke. And this ozone is at our level – not in the atmosphere. Ozone is pretty bad, as well, in terms of causing some overall reductions in lung function, as well as developmental difficulties in children.”
Orr said people most at risk are those with pre-existing lung issues or heart problems, and of anyone exercising outside and breathing more heavily than normal.
“Not having a monitoring station makes it very difficult to really understand what pollutants are present in our atmosphere, because the closest monitoring station we have is in Topeka,” Orr said.
Collins suggested to the commission that a task force be created to look into air quality in Manhattan, and the possibility of getting a monitoring station – though Collins also said a negative of having the station could be that if air quality is poor, local business could be affected by EPA fines.
Orr didn’t think Manhattan would have a problem with air quality on a consistent basis, since the area doesn’t see the highway emissions of Topeka or Wichita, nor share those communities’ industrial-based businesses.
“I’m very concerned about the level of education of our burners and their level of expertise,” commission chairman Bob Boyd said.
“We have people out there burning who are really not qualified, and we need to adjust that. And that’s what I’d like to concentrate on, and I thank you for the information brought to us.”
Orr said the best way for people to protect themselves during burns is to keep apprised of local air quality reports, and to be careful participating in outdoor activities during days when there is a high level of burning – and that individuals with pre-existing heart or lung illness should remain indoors.
He also recommended that doors and windows remain closed, and that any air conditioners should be set to “recirculate” with the outside air intake closed.