Spokane’s gritty air earned the city another ranking it’s unlikely to brag about: eighth-dirtiest in the country, according to a new report.
It’s the second time this year Spokane has landed on a “dirty dozen” list of cities with severe air pollution problems.
In March, it was for carbon monoxide. Now it’s for particulates, those tiny particles that can lodge deep in the lungs and carry toxins into the bloodstream.
The report by the Natural Resources Defense Council says particulates are more than just a nuisance. It estimates as many as 220 people die prematurely in Spokane from heart and lung disease annually due to particulate air pollution - four times more than died in the metropolitan area last year in traffic accidents.
The report on the dangers of particulate pollution is to be released today. It ranks 239 cities in 35 states.
The defense council is an influential, non-profit environmental group with 235,000 members nationwide and a staff of scientists and attorneys.
Its new “Breath Taking” report is the latest effort to emphasize a growing body of scientific evidence linking particulate air pollution to increased risks of illness and death - and to pressure federal officials to tighten pollution standards.
“Lives are not just being shortened by days or weeks, but by an average of 1 to 2 years in the most polluted areas,” the report says.
About 64,000 people throughout the country die prematurely each year due to particulate air pollution, according to the report.
Particulates also make asthmatics sicker and send more elderly people and children to the hospital with breathing problems, the report says.
Spokane has the worst particle problem in the Northwest and one of the worst in the country, according to the rankings.
The problem is partly geographic. The inversion-prone Spokane Valley traps grit from dust storms and pollution from industry, unpaved roads, vehicles, wood stoves and agricultural field burning.
Some 64 deaths per 100,000 people are linked to particulate air pollution in Spokane. That’s more than twice Seattle’s rate of 31 per 100,000, and six times Bremerton’s, the report says.
The ranking didn’t surprise Eric Skelton, Spokane’s top air quality cop.
“It takes into account several severe dust storms in the early ‘90s, and a period in 1993 when we exceeded the federal (pollution) standard for five days with traction materials on the road,” Skelton said.
“We’ve improved since then” by paving some roads, using less traction sand and working to douse field burning, he said.
The particles most hazardous to health are the tiniest, 2.5 microns and smaller in diameter - so small they are invisible and are inhaled deeply into the lung.
By contrast, a human hair is 100 microns wide.
pokane’s carbon monoxide problem, by contrast, is primarily linked to auto exhaust, said Ron Edgar of the Spokane County Air Pollution Control Authority.
The council’s report was released this week in an effort to influence the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s review of particulate standards established in 1987.
Clean air groups want EPA to set a stricter standard for the larger of the small particles, called PM 10 - and establish a new PM 2.5 standard.
The American Lung Association sued the EPA last year to force action on the standards.
Under court order, EPA must propose a new PM 2.5 standard by next January. The standard-setting process has triggered a major political battle, because stricter pollution standards will be costly.
“Well-organized and widespread” opposition from industry to a stricter standard has already emerged, according to the report.
“The epidemiological studies are showing particles are a problem we have to address. But how much are we going to be willing to pay?” Edgar said.
The council is recommending a stringent new PM 2.5 standard - around 10 micrograms per cubic meter of air for an annual average. That would save more than 56,000 lives a year, the report says.
The EPA is considering a slightly less stringent standard, between 15 and 30 micrograms.
Spokane will be in trouble if the new standard is set too low, Edgar said. On Tuesday, with clear skies and a slight breeze, Spokane’s air measured 10 micrograms of PM 2.5. During winter and field burning season, the levels can soar into the 30-microgram range.
“Spokane would never meet a 10-microgram annual standard. Field burning would be out, wood stoves would be out, diesel (vehicles) and barbecues would be out,” Edgar said.
The report’s authors worked with several leading environmental epidemiologists, including Dr. Joel Schwartz of Harvard University and Dr. C. Arden Pope of Brigham Young University.
One of Schwartz’s recent studies linked rising particulate levels to increased hospital admissions and deaths in Spokane. For every 10-microgram increase in particulates, death rates in Spokane and other cities rise 1 percent, Schwartz said.
The defense council’s study applies the methods used in several pioneering studies on the links between particulate levels and disease in more than 155 U.S. cities.
The researchers extrapolated the methods used in those studies to get their rankings for 239 cities.
Their conclusion: “Hundreds of metropolitan areas with concentrations well below the national standards are experiencing unhealthy levels of particulate pollution.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: The dirty dozen