Air Awareness Week a chance to learn, plan, act on air quality to protect most vulnerable to pollution

May 3, 2021

Air quality is a lot like breathing — we rarely think about it unless there’s a problem. Under the thick smoky skies of September 2020, Oregonians could think of little else, already forced close to home by COVID-19 but finding little respite, even indoors, from record-setting wildfires that pumped record-setting pollutants into the Willamette Valley.

Smoky skies above Multnomah County, Sept. 16, 2020

Yet air pollution is a year-round concern for many Multnomah County residents who live near busy roads and industry, and who live with health conditions such as asthma. Low-income people and people of color experience disproportionate exposure to air pollution. And because of climate change, the region has reached the point that those health impacts are felt by everyone.

Today marks the beginning of Air Quality Awareness Week, a time when federal health agencies join with state, local and tribal partners to promote air quality awareness and health.

Multnomah County residents breathe the dirtiest air in the state and face the highest risk of pollution-related cancer from air toxics. Rising ozone levels in Multnomah County have jeopardized the state’s compliance with the federal Clean Air Act. And deadly diesel emissions continue unabated as old, dirty motors land in Oregon — driven here from neighboring states with tighter environmental regulations that don’t allow them. In fact, some residents breathe in up to 25 times more than the state’s already lenient limits of diesel, according to a 2019 study commissioned by local governments. 

Air pollutants irritate the lungs and heart. They can even make a person more susceptible to catching COVID-19 and other viruses, and make those symptoms worse. Certain people are particularly vulnerable to its effects, including pregnant people, older adults, and people with heart and lung conditions. 

The American Lung Association last month released its annual State of the Air report card, using the most recent three years of air pollution data compiled by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Multnomah County, included in the Vancouver-Portland-Salem metropolitan area, ranked 23rd for the highest 24-hour period of particle pollution out of 216 metropolitan areas. On its own, Multnomah County earned a “C” for 24-hour particle pollution and ozone.

Children face special risks of air pollution, because their lungs are still developing. They breathe faster than adults and spend more time outdoors.

“Children are especially at risk for the effects of air pollution and poor air quality,” said Dr. Pat Hogan, a pediatrician at OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital. “The prenatal period is important for lung growth, but a lot of lung development happens after birth and in the first few years of life. It’s a delicate time.”

Where an adult takes 12 breaths a minute, a newborn takes 60 breaths. Over time, that rate goes down. But toddlers and young children also breathe more quickly. And that rapid breathing exposes kids to more air, and more pollution, especially during warmer months when kids play outdoors.

Those factors leave children at higher risk from pollutants including wildfire smoke and smog, both of which are projected to increase as the climate warms. Hogan can’t help but think about his patients when he worries about the future of our planet.

“I think about climate change through the lens of children's health. It’s really a pediatric public health problem,” he said. “So many of the effects, whether it’s temperature-related illness, changes in disease patterns, or more fires and ozone, it all affects kids disproportionately. Their generation will bear the brunt of this going forward.”

Nadège Dubuisson, an air quality specialist with Multnomah County Environmental Health, encourages people to make it a habit to check on air quality, the same way people would check the weather before heading outside. 

“Between COVID-19, an intense wildfire smoke season, and the usual pollution from cars and backyard fires, our lungs are really working hard these days,” she said. “On a personal level, I’ll usually glance at Oregon DEQ’s OregonAir app as I get my toddler ready for the day. If there are yellow or orange circles, we’ll keep our outdoor time mellow, skip a car ride when we can, and turn on the air cleaner at night.”

Below are three things people can do to be aware of our air:

Get cozy with your AQI

The Air Quality Index, or AQI, is a federal measure of pollution in the air. The higher the value, the more pollution and the greater the health concern. An AQI value of 50 or below, shown as Green, is considered good. Yellow and Orange, ranging from 50 to 150, are likely to cause problems only for people with underlying health conditions who are sensitive to pollution. Red days are unhealthy for everyone. Multnomah County spent 18 out of the past 90 days in Yellow, with one in Red.

When air quality is good, health experts encourage people to get outside to play, exercise or simply laze about. When it’s unhealthy, they recommend shortening time outdoors or rescheduling for a different day or time when air quality is expected to be better.

Make it a habit to check the Air Quality Index near you as you make decisions about the day.

Don’t wait for wildfires

September 13, 2020, marked the worst day of air quality ever recorded in Multnomah County, beating the previous record — set September 5, 2017 — by a factor of seven.

In fact, during the September 2020 wildfires, Multnomah County had some of the worst air quality in the world. And as climate change quickens its pace, the length and intensity of wildfire seasons will only increase. So don’t wait for wildfire season to kick into high gear. Gather the materials you need to clean the indoor air, such as a filter or air purifier.

And for residents who live in rural parts of the County, make sure to protect your home, land and animals from encroaching fires. Check out this wildfire season preparedness post from the Oregon State University Extension Service.

Beware the burn

Wildfires consume our attention during the summer and fall, and diesel exhaust stinks up the land around our interstates and busy local roads year round. But wood smoke from home heating accounts for more than half of the County’s fine particle pollution on the average winter day.

Multnomah County enforces a wood burning ordinance each year, from Oct. 1 through March 1, to curb burning on the worst, or Red, air quality days. And the County asks residents to voluntarily avoid using wood on Yellow days when the air quality is moderately unhealthy.