Noel Eder returned warily to Spokane last week for his sister’s wedding.
The 24-year-old kept an eye out for the clouds of grass smoke that he says ruined his health in 1989, forcing a recent double-lung transplant.
Afflicted with cystic fibrosis since childhood, Eder worked hard as a teenager to keep himself healthy with a rigorous exercise and diet program. He ran Bloomsday five years in a row.
As Spokane’s grass-burning season approached each August, his mother sent him to relatives in Seattle to avoid the smoke that’s a hazard to people with lung disease.
Tiny particles in the smoke go deep into the lungs, where they can aggravate health problems - especially in those with cystic fibrosis, a genetic killer that suffocates children and young adults with a slow buildup of mucus in the lungs.
But in 1989, about to start his senior year at Lewis and Clark High School, Eder begged to stay in Spokane to be with his friends.
Within a week into the burning season, he was hospitalized.
“I couldn’t even walk up a flight of stairs. The grass growers didn’t cause my illness, but they helped my lungs deteriorate,” he said.
“His health and his senior year was taken away. It was a very bad time for him,” said his grandmother, Maxine Donoian.
Spokane pulmonologist Dr. Michael McCarthy says the grass smoke that year was the likely factor that tipped the fragile teen from health to disability.
“I find that it is quite significant that Noel’s recent flare-up … seemed to occur during the height of the grass-burning season this year,” McCarthy said in an Oct. 10, 1989 letter to the family’s lawyer.
Eder’s lungs never recovered. In 1990, his doctors got him on a lung transplant list.
This spring, Eder finally received two new lungs at a Seattle hospital. So far, the medical bills have topped $500,000. Anti-rejection drugs cost $4,000 a month.
The bills are paid by taxpayers because Eder is too sick to work.
“The health costs are often overlooked in the grass burning debate,” said Yvonne Bucklin of the American Lung Association of Washington.
In a national study released in June, the association said stricter standards for small particulates, including grass smoke, could save Spokane County residents more than $1 million a year in health costs for respiratory problems.
Eder’s family is angry the state Legislature deregulated grass burning this year.
“The laws actually went backwards. This upsets us terribly, knowing how hard we worked to keep Noel well,” Donoian said.
Eder’s mad, too.
In 1990, he testified at a Spokane County Air Pollution Control Authority hearing, calling for reductions in burning days.
“People need to start filing lawsuits against the grass growers. They are making money by burning, and they aren’t paying for our medical costs,” he said.
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