Vulnerable Montanans breathe easier thanks to donated HEPA filters

October 02, 2017

As wildfires continue to wreak havoc across Western Montana, it’s no surprise that Missoula residents are desperate to breathe clean air. For those with weakened or underdeveloped respiratory systems—like home-bound seniors with COPD who require oxygen and young children with asthma – there is even more of an urgency to ensure better air quality.

And it’s not just about the outdoor air—the insidious wildfire smoke that has reached catastrophic levels in some areas makes its way through closed doors and window cracks of homes, classrooms and businesses—most of which don’t have central air systems with filtration built in.

That’s why Providence St. Patrick Hospital teamed up with Climate Smart Missoula this summer to provide free high-efficiency particular air (HEPA) filters to help purify the indoor air for some of the region’s most vulnerable residents, including older adults and families with young children who were at high risk for complications, but who lacked the funds to purchase filters.

Amy Cilimburg, executive director of Climate Smart Missoula, says she’ll never forget helping to set up an air filter in the home of an elderly woman with respiratory issues. “With the smoke season being so hard, her ability to breathe was really compromised, and she was so appreciative of our help that she was in tears,” says Amy. “These people are scared for their health, and we’re so glad we can provide them some relief.”

A community partnership to address climate change

Climate Smart is a local climate resiliency nonprofit project of the Missoula Community Foundation, and it works closely with the city of Missoula, Providence St. Patrick Hospital, the University of Montana, and other area nonprofits and businesses to ensure the community is planning for and acting on climate change. Programs are geared toward helping build and sustain a healthy community that is able to adapt and respond to climate-related challenges with hope, kindness, innovation and well-being.

While efforts to make Missoula climate-friendly have been around for at least a decade, no one had taken responsibility for non-municipal efforts to alleviate and adapt to climate change until Climate Safe Missoula was born in 2015, says Amy.

Providence St. Patrick Hospital began partnering with Climate Smart Missoula on its Summer Smart initiative two years ago as a direct response to Providence’s community health needs assessment, which found that improving air quality in this region of Montana was a great need. In Missoula, the bowl-shaped valley traps wildfire smoke from as far away as California, contributing to poor summer air quality. In fact, the American Lung Association has ranked Missoula 10th most polluted city in the nation for short-term particle pollution (wood smoke contains high levels of fine particulate matter, which causes many adverse health impacts).

Summer Smart is an initiative to help the community “weather the weather” amid increasing summer wildfire smoke and extreme heat. As part of this initiative, the nonprofit launched a pilot program to distribute HEPA room filters to elderly and to local schools. Filters cost approximately $130 each, but are free of charge to those most vulnerable through this program.

Since 2016, Providence St. Patrick Hospital has invested a total of $28,000 in community benefit to Climate Smart Missoula to support the organization’s efforts toward providing clean air to the region’s most vulnerable residents. Through this partnership, the organization has been able to provide HEPA filters to more than 25 low-income families with high health risks. In addition, Providence St. Patrick Hospital physician experts spoke of the risks and realities of climate change at Climate Safe Missoula’s summit attended by more than 100 community leaders.

“We’ve found that our partnership with Providence St. Patrick Hospital is having a big ripple effect because now there are other community partners stepping in to help fund additional air filters and other programs,” says Amy. “This will have a long term impact on the health of the people in our communities. In the long run, we hope to see these efforts result in fewer people needing to go to the ER or the doctor for respiratory issues.”