Idling vehicles puffed out exhaust, and a haze lingered around the Safeway grocery store parking lot Tuesday. Jan Kreischer, who sells crafts, held her breath as she dashed through the parking lot to get into the adjacent mall.
It was her only concession to polluted air in North Pole, where the official air quality monitor is reporting the nation’s highest episodic levels of fine particulate matter, more commonly referred to as PM 2.5.
During last week’s cold snap, North Pole had six uninterrupted days where the air was deemed unhealthy — a new record for consecutive bad air days, according to the Fairbanks North Star Borough air quality office.
Residents interviewed about the pollution Tuesday said they don’t dwell on it.
People were approached at random by the News-Miner in various parts of the city, and no one said they change their habits on bad air days. Seeing someone wearing breathing protection is uncommon, they said. When the air is bad in North Pole, life goes on like normal, they noted.
“I wake up. I get in my car. I drive to work,” said Kim Marie Hunter, a professional cook. “I choose to live here. It’s not something that I am overly stressed about.”
Decades of scientific research and hundreds of studies show a link between particulate pollution and a variety of heart and lungs illnesses, but for most, it’s a slow erosion of health from a nearly invisible threat.
The pollution is intermittent, usually occurring on cold winter days when the air is stagnant.
Theresa Katsaitis, director of Klondike Kids, a day care center, said she feels more affected by the cold than by the air pollution. She pays light attention to air quality alerts. It’s not something she hears people talking about around North Pole, she said.
“People just get on with their lives,” she said. “To me, the summers are worse when the fires are bad.”
She thinks too much attention is paid to wood smoke and too little attention is paid to vehicle exhaust. Either way, she has little hope the government can control it.
Jacque McKeown, who owns hair salon Head 2 Toe, said she notices air quality alerts when she passes the borough’s electronic message board parked by the Sourdough Fuel on Badger Road. She said she smells pockets of bad air as she drives from her home off Nordale Road to her salon in the city.
“There are certain areas off of Badger Road that are worse than others,” she said. “When I drive by certain areas off of Badger, it hurts to breathe.”
But she said she rarely notices bad air once she crosses the highway into the city of North Pole.
“I don’t really hear people talking about it,” McKeown said. “The wildfire smoke — people definitely talk more about that.”
Kayla Mountain, who suffers from asthma, lives kitty-corner from the North Pole air quality monitor on Hurst Road. She moved there from Fairbanks about a year ago.
Mountain described the air as “a little thick” sometimes but said it hasn’t aggravated her asthma.
“I don’t go outside a lot,” she said. “If I was out there, working, it would probably be bad.”
Brandon Phillips, who sells real estate, said he travels to Fairbanks from North Pole pretty much daily. The air he breathes in North Pole doesn’t seem any different than the air he breathes in Fairbanks, he said.
“I just don’t think it is as bad as what they are saying it is,” he said.
Phillips said he smells pockets of bad air around the borough — not just North Pole — but said that’s inevitable with low-lying areas in cold temperatures.
“Anywhere you have a low-lying area and it’s cold, you are going to see pockets of haze,” Phillips said. “In the Goldstream Valley, you see a lot out there.”
The real estate agent said he has never seen anyone in North Pole don a face mask for protection from air pollution. He doesn’t think people pay attention to regulations on wood burning.
Phillips said he thinks particulate pollution regulations are a form of government overreach.
“I think that PM 2.5 and the issues with controlling it are just another way for the government to control how I live my life on a regular basis,” he said.
Kreischer, the crafter who holds her breath while walking through parking lots, said she hears Phillips’ point of view often in North Pole.
“I have never heard anyone say it’s nice that they are worried about us,” she said. “It’s mostly complaints that they are controlling us.”