Friday, July 8, 2011

Air Time: Summer brings welcome heat ... and air problems

By Seth Preston, Communications Manager, Air Quality Program

Well, it looks like summertime temperatures are settling in after the long, cold, wet winter/spring.

But with nice weather and heat come air quality challenges.


What would summer and the Fourth of July holiday be without a barrage a fireworks in just about every community in the state?

Well, for one thing, there would be a whole lot less smoke in the air.

For example, the shooting off of fireworks shot fine particle readings through the roof in Puyallup. Starting at 11 p.m. July 4, fine particles in the local air shot into the “unhealthy for sensitive groups” category, according to Washington Air Quality Advisory monitoring data. (Here’s an explanation of WAQA.)

They peaked in the “unhealthy” category at 1 a.m. and stayed there until 5 a.m. Air quality returned to the “moderate” category by 6 a.m.

In prior years, air monitors have shown similar high levels of fine particles in the air because of fireworks. These fine particles are made up of soot, dust and unburned fuel. Breathing them can cause or contribute to serious health problems, including:
  • Risk of heart attack and stroke

  • Lung inflammation

  • Reduced lung function

  • Asthma-like symptoms

  • Asthma attacks

  • Cancer
Those most at risk for health effects are children, the elderly and people with lung or heart disease.

Even people who are healthy may have temporary symptoms such as irritation of the eyes, nose and throat; coughing; phlegm; chest tightness; and shortness of breath.

Wildfire smoke

Fireworks can spark wildfires. And wildfires are common during the summer, as are the clouds of unhealthy smoke they produce.

Fine particles in smoke are so small they can easily get into your lungs. Once there, they can cause or worsen heart and breathing problems like asthma, and even lead to death. Children, people with asthma and respiratory illnesses, and adults older than 65 are most at risk.

This news release details the dangers of wildfire smoke, how you can use alternatives to burning yard waste and how you can protect yourself against breathing harmful wildfire smoke.


Sunlight and heat mean higher levels of ozone. There are two kinds of ozone. “Good” ozone forms naturally about 10 to 30 miles above the Earth’s surface. It helps protect life on Earth from the sun’s harmful rays.

But ozone at ground level is considered “bad.” It is the main ingredient of smog, and can cause health problems.

Ground-level ozone is a gas created by a chemical reaction between nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the presence of sunlight. Vehicle and industrial emissions, gasoline vapors, chemical solvents, and natural sources emit NOx and VOCs that help form ground-level ozone. Many urban areas tend to have high levels of ozone. But high ozone levels can also be found in rural areas, because wind carries ozone and ozone-forming pollutants hundreds of miles away from their sources.

During July we expect EPA to announce a new, lower ozone standard to better protect human health and the environment. We're waiting to see how that might affect communities in Washington.

Here's an Ecology YouTube video about ozone.

Unhealthy ozone levels can affect people with lung disease, children, older adults, and people who are active. Breathing ozone can:
  • Trigger airway irritation, coughing and pain when taking a deep breath.

  • Cause wheezing and breathing difficulties during exercise or outdoor activities.

  • Inflame lung tissue.

  • Aggravate asthma.

  • Increase susceptibility to respiratory illnesses like pneumonia and bronchitis.

  • Permanently scar lung tissue after repeated exposures.

Here’s what you can do to help reduce ozone:
  • Drive less. Combine errands or use public transportation.

  • Postpone travel until cooler evening hours, if possible.

  • Don’t use lawnmowers or other small engines that emit air pollutants.

  • Observe bans on outdoor burning because of high fire danger and health protection.

  • Don’t idle your engine. Turn it off while your vehicle is parked or waiting in line.

  • Wait for cooler morning or evening hours to refuel your vehicle.

  • Don’t paint or use aerosol sprays until temperatures cool off.

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