EDGE engagement project lifts moods in the smoke-choked Methow Valley

Typically, summer in the Methow Valley is a time to hike, bike, camp, river raft, mountain climb, attend outdoor arts festivals, and otherwise enjoy the spectacular natural setting.

Lately, things are different. Wildfire season has hit the Methow Valley hard the last five years, causing hazardous smoke conditions that can persist for weeks on end, often making residents feel trapped and isolated.

Teenagers in Twisp, WA find fun and relief from smoke-filled air as part of an EDGE-led community engagement effort. Photo by Kelly Edwards.

Recommendations from public health agencies are commonly limited to staying inside and wearing masks, but those messages aren’t always helpful for people who have been losing whole weeks of summer, cooped up inside. For farmers and agricultural workers who need to harvest, and carpenters who must complete essential outdoor projects before snow falls, staying indoors or leaving the area is not an option. And yet going outside with masks can add to the feeling of apocalypse.

Kelly Edwards, Director of Engagement with the University of Washington Interdisciplinary Center for Exposures, Diseases, Genomics and Environment, wanted to create a different type of public engagement activity, one that would bring community members together in a fun and positive way while providing information to support good day-to-day decision-making.

A girl decorates her mask at the Twisp farmers market. Photo: Kelly Edwards 

The outreach she envisioned would complement the Methow Valley Clean Air Project (MVCAP), which placed Purple Air monitors throughout the Valley to provide residents with timely, highly localized air quality reports that support daily decisions like whether or not to go for a run and, if so, where.

To help create the right messages, Edwards partnered with two local community members—Anthony Twig Wheeler, an international leader in somatic therapy and Robin Baire, a clinical herbalist. Wheeler makes regular appearances on KTRT, the local radio station, to talk about managing stress during wildfire season. Baire specializes in teas and tinctures that can combat the inflammatory response triggered by smoke exposure.

A volunteer with the Methow Valley Clean Air Project. Photo by Kelly Edwards. 

Together with community health expert Rachel Levi and Amanda Durkin, an undergraduate intern in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences who works with Dr. Nicole Errett and MVCAP, Edwards, Wheeler, and Baire set up a booth at the Twisp Farmer’s Market last Saturday where they emphasized support for the body’s natural defenses. Wheeler set up comfortable chairs for people to sit in and talk, Baire provided samples of tea and anti-inflammatory tinctures, and Edwards and Durkin passed out air masks provided by the EDGE Center, encouraging people to color on them with non-toxic markers.

“We wanted to give people the right kind of masks,” says Edwards, “but we also wanted them to make them their own. Adding color made them more fun to wear and also kept people from looking like they were sick.” The masks were rated N95 which means they filter out the tiny particulates that pose a health risk. But unlike masks provided by other public health agencies, they also had an air-exchange pocket at the nose that made exhalation easier and kept internal temperatures more comfortable.

The mask activity drew people from age three to 86. Along with the masks, Kelly distributed a handout designed to be accessible to an elementary school audience with simple messages about what’s in smoke and how you can take care of yourself until it passes. The booth also demonstrated simple DIY home air filters that improve indoor air quality. Taping a furnace filter with a MERV rating of 10 or higher to a regular box fan helps remove PM2.5 that infiltrates everything, including our homes.

Methow Valley Clean Air Ambassadors help community members track the highs and lows of air quality in the Methow Valley over the fire season. 

The positive, action-oriented activity was well-received by a community hit hard by smoke for the last five summers. Edwards says that one of the biggest insights from the engagement activity was recognizing the benefit of framing simple, helpful information in a positive way. One elder community member pointed to the last suggestion “Remind yourself that you’re OK and the smoke will go away again,” and said, “This is what I really needed to hear today.”

Edwards and crew will be back at the Twisp Farmer’s Market for Labor Day weekend and plan to do more stress-less activities this weekend at a community dance party organized by the local radio station KTRT and Wheeler. Along with Elizabeth Walker of the MVCAP, the UW EDGE Center plans to further develop, test, and disseminate positive and nuanced public health messaging around smoke preparedness and disaster response.

Getting their hands on science

High school teachers try out a science experiment during a UW workshop. Photo: Sarah Fish
From sun exposure to vaping, this teacher training program pioneered by DEOHS is changing how high school students learn about health and the environment.*

Sure, you can lecture teenagers about the dangers of sun exposure. You can tell them that skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States. But if you really want the message to hit home, let them discover it for themselves.
That’s the premise behind a pioneering environmental-health education program developed by the UW Center for Exposures, Diseases, Genomics & Environment (EDGE) and a group of Washington high school teachers. EDGE is part of the UW Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences (DEOHS).
The ATHENA program—it stands for the Academy for Teaching about Health and Environment Associations—has changed how health and science are taught across the state since it launched under a different name more than 20 years ago.
“We are reaching students in non-science classes and getting them to think about the intricate connections between human health, the health of the environment and the choices we make as individuals and society,” said Jon Sharpe, DEOHS instruction support specialist who helped start the program.

Learning by doing

A sun simulator replicates UV light. Photo: Sarah Fish.
Teachers say the emphasis on hands-on science and topics relevant to today’s teens gets students excited about health careers and changes how they think about their choices as consumers.
EDGE staff work with high school teachers across Washington to develop classroom kits that teach students about the nutritional differences between natural and artificial sweeteners, the health effects of vaping and other environmental health topics.
“Kids like to get their hands on something tactile,” said Marilyn Hair, former community outreach specialist with EDGE who worked with teachers to develop the kits.

A sun-baked experiment

In the sun exposure experiment, high school students place colorless beads, made of special material that reacts to ultraviolet light, inside a clear plastic box and smear lotion or sunscreen on the clear lid. Other beads are placed in a box with nothing applied to the lid.
Then students make predictions: What will happen to the beads when the boxes are exposed to sunlight?
The approach itself is backed by science: A recent study from the University of Chicago found that students who physically experience scientific concepts understand them more deeply and do better on tests.

Adopted by 33 school districts

Beads used in the sun exposure experiment. Photo: courtesy of Lisa Hayward Watts.
The kits are now part of the health curriculum and family and consumer sciences classes in 33 school districts across Washington.
“The ATHENA curriculum hits on a lot of cylinders,” explained Lindzee Alvarez, a health teacher at Interlake High School in Bellevue and one of ATHENA’s first participants. “Students bring home resonant concepts to their families about relevant topics and can link to things they are learning about in other classes.”
Lessons and activities developed for the ATHENA program are now part of the Bellevue School District health curriculum taught across all of the district’s high schools, thanks to efforts by Alvarez and others to promote the materials.

Making science relevant

Alvarez and other ATHENA participants convened at the UW last month to document the program’s impact, revisit program goals and discuss ways to measure its future effectiveness.
While the original idea was to expose middle- and high-school science teachers to the expertise of UW science researchers, ATHENA now also supports teachers developing and piloting new environmental health-focused lessons and activities, Sharpe said.
“When we first started doing outreach to schools, there was a sense that we really needed to get students to do lab-based experiments so we could nurture future environmental health scientists,” Sharpe said.
Today, “there’s a new emphasis on really big, interdisciplinary problems like climate change, the built environment and health disparities—problems that will require all sorts of expertise to tackle in the coming years.”

*This article first appeared on the University of Washington Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences blog "Health & Saftey Matters."