May 2, 2023 - Climate

Fires have worsened Portland's air quality

Data: EPA; Map: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

Air quality in the Portland metro area, as measured by fine particle pollution, has gotten worse overall since 2012 but still falls within current safe ranges, Axios' Alex Fitzpatrick and Kavya Beheraj report.

Why it matters: Fine particles, generated from fossil fuel burning and other sources, can enter our bodies when we breathe, making their way to the lungs or bloodstream and causing myriad health problems.

  • They are linked to nearly 11,000 excess deaths across the U.S. annually, by one estimate.
  • Nonwhite and low-income Americans are at a higher risk of death from exposure to fine particle pollution compared to other groups, per a 2022 study published in Nature.

By the numbers: The three-year rolling annual average concentration of fine particle pollution across the Portland area was 8.2 micrograms per cubic meter as of 2021 (the latest year for which data is available), compared to 7.2 in 2012 — a 14% increase.

  • That's still below the EPA and Oregon's safe standard of 12 micrograms per cubic meter, but clean air activists say there's a catch.

"We're not out of compliance. So that creates less impetus, less urgency. And yet, we're seeing the trends go up," Mary Peveto, executive director of the Portland nonprofit Neighbors for Clean Air, told Axios.

Data: EPA; Note: A concentration below 12 micrograms per cubic meter is considered healthy; Chart: Axios Visuals

Zoom out: In January, the EPA proposed reducing its fine particle pollution standard from 12 micrograms per cubic meter to "a level between 9 and 10."

Zoom in: But Oregon's Department of Environmental Quality says the proposed changes are "not sufficient to protect public health."

  • The DEQ submitted testimony recommending 8 micrograms per cubic meter as a new national standard.
  • State officials also warned that the EPA assessment of the problem excluded most of Oregon's population, who are increasingly exposed to wildfire smoke.

The other side(s): Peveto says the U.S. should follow World Health Organization guidelines, which recommend a maximum 5 micrograms per cubic meter.

  • Some industry groups, meanwhile, argue that lowering the standard would be overly burdensome.

Of note: Wildfires contributed to a notable worsening of air quality in Oregon and parts of other Western states.

  • Right now, fire officials are predicting an "above normal" wildfire risk in central and southeastern Oregon in particular, starting in July.

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