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Health & Prevention Report: Local Pulmonologist Discusses Respiratory Issues In The Four Corners That Go Beyond Wildfire Smoke And COVID-19

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In the Four Corners region, there are a bunch of environmental and medical factors that can affect respiratory health. Whether that’s wildfire smoke, viruses, or simply allergies, almost no one is completely safe from some sort of respiratory issue around here. But there are also some industrial effects that are specific to the Four Corners - with roots decades old - that leave some of the region’s elderly population particularly vulnerable. For this week’s Health and Prevention Report, KSJD’s Lucas Brady Woods spoke to Dr. Ed Razma, a lung specialist at Southwest Health System in Cortez.

Lucas Brady Woods: Dr. Razma, welcome to KSJD News.

Dr. Ed Razma: Nice to talk to you today, Lucas.

Woods: So how big of a public health issue are respiratory issues here in southwest Colorado?

Razma: The main really kind of respiratory issue from sort of environmental exposure here, there's a couple of them. One would be smoke, the environment and the wildfire smokes, you know, smoke every year. Of course, we have our wildfires with our drought type conditions that we have in southwest Colorado. And smoke can be an irritant as well as make people's breathing worse. So that's, the main one. Respiratory infections can be another one. Sometimes we have some unusual ones that happen in this part of the country. But a lot of times, it's just the huge one. And of course, in this day and age, COVID. And viruses like that are a major concern.

Woods: When it comes to populations that are generally affected most by these respiratory issues, what populations around here are those?

Razma: Well, people with underlying lung disease, and those kind of fall into two categories. That would be people who develop who maybe are born with lung disease develop lung disease, like asthma or COPD, where their Airways, they are always bringing air into the lungs are abnormal or damage maybe from cigarette smoking, or other occupational exposure. And then there are people who have lung disease, perhaps due to occupational exposures such as dust exposure, we have a number of friends and family historically, in the area of miners who worked in uranium mines and other mining, coal mining and other coal mining who may have developed lung disease due to dust inhalation underground. And when your lungs are diseased, or your airways are affected like that, then you're more prone to develop problems when you're not just breathing fresh, clean air.

Woods: That's so interesting. I mean, do you have any patients that are suffering from those, like more people from elderly people who might have done those kinds of things? Are we talking way back in the day?

Razma: No, there are still individuals who were involved in that, when they were, for instance, young, particularly young men like in their 20s. This was particularly affected a lot of our Native Americans in the area, because this was back in the heyday was kind of in the really probably around the 50s and 60s. And last century, when uranium mining became very popular, both for weaponry as well as energy development. And a lot of the Native Americans in the area found good jobs at these mines. But unfortunately, you know, we didn't have such good control of work environment, such that it protected a lot of the people who did work underground in these dusty mines, mining uranium, and many of them developed lung disease from inhalation of this mining dust over the years. And there are a number of who are still alive. In fact, there is a program through the Department of Labor to compensate those people who develop lung disease that they can apply for, to the Department of Labor. And I have a number of people I follow for that, as well as I do the assessments to see if they qualify.

Woods: So going forward into this into the fall. You know, you mentioned a few ways people can mitigate some of these risks, respiratory risks, are there any other ways people can you would recommend people take care of their lungs in their airways?

Razma: You know, getting vaccines, you know, vaccines are an interesting way that we can help prevent illnesses and disease from occurring in the first place. We have so many vaccines now available, both for children, infants, adults, and there's more and more coming over time. That that whole science of getting something ahead of time to allow your immune system to prevent a disease from happening is a great way you know to prevent illness from happening. That's number one. Number two is another thing Simple. Simple things like wearing a mask, obviously politically controversial, but nonetheless even simple procedures like that, especially in public places where there is no you know, a lot of exposure to other people is a simple precaution. wearing a mask is a simple precaution. To not only keep you from getting sick. But if you might have a virus, it helps reduce the risk that you might transmit it to someone else.

Woods: Just to clarify quickly, you know, and you know, some people's minds go to COVID vaccine, but you're talking about vaccines for many different things, including flu and other respiratory illnesses, correct?

Razma: Correct. And for the main one, for course, for adults is for everyone to get the yearly influenza vaccine which is quite effective vaccine, and greatly reduces the chance that you can get a severe illness from influenza.

Woods: I'll get mine very soon. Dr. Razma, thank you so much for speaking with me today.

Razma: It was a pleasure and, you know, these are important things that people need to know about in the area here. I'm glad to help spread the news.

Health and prevention reporting on KSJD is made possible with support from Celebrating Healthy Communities, the Montezuma County Health Department and Southwest Health System.

Lucas is the News Director and host of NPR's Morning Edition for KSJD Community Radio. His work focuses on serving the public of the Four Corners with responsible, factual reporting.