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Here’s what the wildfire smoke has done to Tri-Cities air quality

Satellite images show smoke drifted over Washington, Idaho from British Columbia wildfires

A heavy haze of smoke in summer 2018 from wildfires in Canada hung over northwest Washington.
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A heavy haze of smoke in summer 2018 from wildfires in Canada hung over northwest Washington.

The Tri-Cities earned a failing grade for its increasing problems with ozone after recent hot summers and wildfire smoke have taken their toll, a new report said.

In the American Lung Association’s State of the Air report, issued every April, Tri-Cities was given an ”F” after there were 14 days of air quality that were unhealthy for sensitive populations due to ozone.

Benton County ranked 47th in the nation for high ozone days out of 228 metropolitan areas.

The measurements were for 2015-17.

Benton and Franklin counties received “DNC” marks — Data Not Collected — for particle pollution because the area has no state or federal monitors.

The state and EPA decide where to place monitors, said the association. There are state or EPA monitors in less than 1,000 of the 3,068 U.S. counties.

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The Tri-Cities earned a failing grade for its increasing problems with ozone after recent hot summers and wildfire smoke have taken their toll, a new report said.

The new report shows Yakima’s air quality has significantly worsened, coming in sixth in the nation for most dirty with short-term particle pollution.

Heat, fires and ozone

Smoke from wildfires has been linked to spikes in Tri-Cities ozone levels in some cases.

Ozone in the Earth’s upper atmosphere is good, shielding people from harmful ultraviolet radiation. But high levels near the ground are a health hazard.

Ozone can aggravate asthma, inflame and scar lung tissue, and make people more susceptible to bronchitis and pneumonia.

Children, the elderly, people with lung disease and those who work hard or exercise outdoors are most at risk.

After finding unhealthy ozone levels in the Tri-Cities air in 2015 that were nearly as high as those downwind of Seattle, the Department of Ecology launched a study with support from the Benton Clean Air Agency.

The study, finished last spring, showed the 2015 ozone levels were no fluke.

The average for 2015 through 2017 exceeded the federal regulatory limit for ozone, which could trigger sanctions from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

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The sanctions likely would hit the local economy. They could make getting air quality permits more difficult for new or expanding businesses, or require them to invest in projects that would offset their contribution to the ozone problem.

The Lung Association report shows the ozone pollution worsened in much of the nation, with Los Angeles leading the way.

Of the 25 most-ozone-polluted cities in the U.S, 17 had more high ozone days on weighted average during 2015-17 than the 2014-16 measurements, said the report.

Washington state health officials are urging residents to be prepared for smoky days with poor air quality as wildfire season heats up. Seniors, young children and people with existing respiratory problems are especially vulnerable.

“Warmer temperatures stimulate the reactions in the atmosphere that cause ozone to form, and 2017 saw the second-warmest temperatures on record in the United States,” the report said.

The three years covered in this report, 2015-17, were the three warmest years ever recorded, it said.

Car exhaust and gas fumes

In the Tri-Cities, the chemicals that create ozone can come from the exhaust of vehicles and gasoline vapors. They also can come from industrial facilities.

How can people help?

The report recommends people drive less and don’t burn wood or trash.

The association also asks people to encourage local, state and Congressional officials to support cleaner, healthier air.

The good news is that wildfire danger should be no worse than normal for the Mid-Columbia, according to recent projections of the National Interagency Fire Center.

But areas to the north and south of the Tri-Cities may be at increased risk for wildfires this summer, raising the possibility of stagnant smoke settling over the Tri-Cities for a third summer in a row.

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