Poor air quality creates health risks
By Ann McCreary
Autumn in the Methow Valley brings cool, crisp weather, bright days and colorful foliage. And smoke. Just like every other season of the year.
The Methow Valley’s clean, clear air — one of its key attractions — is anything but clean and clear for extended periods of the year. In fact, the Methow Valley has four seasons of smoke, said Liz Walker, head of the Methow Valley Clean Air Project.
And it is not insignificant amounts of smoke, Walker said. Air pollution in Twisp is among the worst in the state, based on data from Washington Department of Ecology.
Each season in the Methow Valley brings its own source of air pollution. In recent years, the all-too-familiar pall of wildfire smoke has hung over the valley for days or weeks during summer. As wildfires are put out by cooler, wet weather of fall, the valley enters another phase of smoke produced by prescribed burning in national forests, outdoor burn piles and wood stoves for home heating.
In spring, prescribed burning begins again, as well as more burn piles. “Maybe a respite in June and early July, and then wildfire season will be upon us,” Walker said.
Although wildfire season can bring health-threatening amounts of smoke to the valley, like last summer’s Diamond Creek Fire, poor air quality is a real concern in winter as well, Walker said. “We’re susceptible to inversions and stagnation in the winter months” that trap wood stove smoke on the valley floor, she said.
Smoke is the air pollutant of greatest concern in the Methow Valley, and is monitored by the Department of Ecology. It is known as PM2.5, which means particulate matter that is 2.5 microns or smaller. These tiny particles are most frequently caused by incomplete combustion, and can stay airborne and can travel long distances, increasing the likelihood that humans and animals will inhale them.
Data collected by a Department of Ecology air monitor in Twisp ranked air quality at that site among the eight most-polluted places in the state in 2016, Walker said. “By several of the measures the Department of Ecology uses to look at PM2.5 pollution reported at air quality monitors across the state, Twisp ranks among the worst in air pollution — worse than metro Seattle or Tacoma. This is even after PM2.5 from wildfire smoke is subtracted out,” Walker said.
There was insufficient data from the air pollution monitor in Winthrop to assess air quality there last year, “but it is typically only slightly better than Twisp,” Walker said.
“Our valley cares a lot about this, and we’re working together to improve it. There’s a real public health cost to air pollution. Anyone who has sat around a campfire, or gone for a strenuous hike on a smoky day has had a firsthand lesson in the toxicity of smoke,” Walker said.
Walker’s concern about health impacts come from her training as an environmental health toxicologist. Harmful effects range from the inability to exercise outdoors, to respiratory distress and infections, to increased risk of cancer.
“For vulnerable populations — babies, children, pregnant women, elders, and anyone with heart or lung issues — bad air days can mean serious health repercussions. For everyone, chronic exposure to high levels of PM2.5 can potentially trigger or exacerbate conditions such as headaches, asthma, bronchitis and cardiovascular disease.”
There are economic costs of air pollution in the Methow Valley as well, she said. “We’re a tourist economy, dependent on the natural beauty of the valley,” Walker said.
The Methow Valley Clean Air Project was launched in 2015 by Raleigh Bowden, a local physician, after she saw people suffering health effects of poor winter air quality, Walker said. A key goal of the project is improving air quality during the home heating season, October through March.
“Due to our valley’s frequent winter inversions, smoke from woodstoves and outdoor burning pollutes our air to frequently unhealthy levels,” Walker said. “We’ve focused on the home heating season because this is when we can make behavioral changes to improve our air quality. This is a controllable source of pollution, as contrasted with pollution from wildfires.”
The Clean Air Project outlines measures residents can take to reduce pollution from wood stoves, including: Properly season wood so that it is dry and burns cleaner; clean chimneys yearly; build small, hot fires and don’t damp them down; comply with burn bans; upgrade to certified stoves or a wood-burning alternative; weatherize homes.
The organization is also working to reduce outdoor burning of yard waste and provide alternatives, including “vegetation drives” sponsored by the Clean Air Project, Walker said.
Vegetation drives, supported by grants and partnerships, were held in the fall of 2016 and spring of 2017, and another drive is scheduled next spring. Past drives have collected about 20 tons of vegetation, which prevented hundreds or thousands of hours of smoke, Walker said.
The yard waste was dropped off by residents and hauled to the county landfill during the first drive, conducted over two days. During the second drive, conducted over eight days in partnership with the Town of Twisp, residents delivered vegetation to a site near the Twisp wastewater treatment plant, where it was chipped and offered free for landscaping and mulching.
“The most unusual community participant brought his load strapped to the back of his bicycle — now that’s commitment to clean air!” Walker said.
The Clean Air Project also partnered this year with the Pine Forest Homeowners Association to provide support for chipping branches and slash created when underbrush and trees were thinned and limbed as part of Pine Forest’s ongoing Firewise efforts. The debris would otherwise have been burned.
Next spring’s vegetation drive will be conducted in partnership with the Okanogan Conservation District, Walker said. She suggested that residents who have been accumulating yard waste cover their piles this fall instead of burning them, and haul them to the vegetation drive in the spring to be chipped.
Walker acknowledged that it takes extra effort, and a different mindset, to participate in a vegetation drive rather than burn yard waste. “It’s hard. Our valley is long. It requires a truck, loading it up and hauling it in,” she said. “People have been outdoor burning in the valley forever. It’s how you get rid of your stuff when you live out in the country.”
However, Walker said, many valley residents have been supportive of the vegetation drives. “People really appreciate this as an option. They don’t want to impact the health of families and the community,” she said.
For people who want to continue the longstanding local tradition of burning yard waste, the Clean Air Project suggests “best practices for burning outdoors in the most safe and clean way,” Walker said.
“Make sure the pile is as bone dry as possible. Make sure you know what is a good day, with good ventilation, but not too much wind. We’ve interacted with Fire District 6 and smokejumpers. There are lots of folks with tons of knowledge about how to build a hot, clean pile,” she said.
The Clean Air Project is overseen by a volunteer advisory group. The Methow Valley Citizens’ Council is fiscal sponsor for the organization. More information is available on the Methow Valley Clean Air Project Facebook page.