Home / Focus / Environment June 2011 / After the flames: Advanced ADEQ air monitors find historically high level of ‘particularly nasty pollutant’

After the flames: Advanced ADEQ air monitors find historically high level of ‘particularly nasty pollutant’

Firefighters line up for a meal as smoke from the Wallow Fire fills the sky at an incident command center in Eagar on June 9. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Firefighters line up for a meal as smoke from the Wallow Fire fills the sky at an incident command center in Eagar on June 9. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

When it comes to wildfires, size really matters — the bigger the blaze, the greater potential danger to homes, businesses, wildlife, trees, shrubs, the environment, and most important, people.

Arizona continues to be pummeled by wildfires, starting with the mammoth Wallow Fire in the Springerville area and the Monument Fire raging near Sierra Vista. And it’s still early in the monsoon season, when lightning strikes pose a serious wildfire hazard.

The real danger to people, however, is not the fire itself. It’s the astronomical levels of air pollution carried many hundreds of miles by billowing smoke.

The Environmental Protection Agency standard for particulate matter known as PM2.5 is 35.5 micrograms per cubic meter. Readings above that are considered in the unhealthy range.

At the height of the Wallow Fire earlier this month, the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality recorded readings in the Springerville area as high as 1,200 micrograms. At other times, there were readings of nearly 250, still well above the unhealthy range, ADEQ reports. Air quality in the Springerville/Eagar area has since returned to normal, ADEQ says.

“We’ve experienced extremely hazardous air quality in the Springerville and surrounding areas,” says Mark Shaffer, ADEQ communications director, who toured the area recently. “The concentrations in Springerville we observed during a single hour would have violated the PM2.5 24-hour standard, even if there was no PM2.5 for the rest of the day.”

PM2.5 is the most concerning pollutant, Shaffer explains, due to its ability to penetrate deep into the lungs and the body’s inability to metabolize or expel the pollutant.

Henry Dawrin, ADEQ director, calls PM2.5 “the smallest of small particulates — it really is a particularly nasty pollutant.”

A 2008 report by the Canadian Medical Association notes that bigger pollutants, such as dust particles, are heavier and settle on the ground. However, if inhaled, they collect in the nose and throat, and the body gets rid of them through sneezing and coughing.

Much smaller PM2.5 particulates can remain in the air for days to weeks, penetrating the lungs and collecting in tiny air sacs where oxygen enters the bloodstream, the Canadian report states. Coughing and wheezing are two of the mild problems associated with inhaling PM2.5. However, this type of air pollution can also cause or worsen serious illnesses such as asthma, heart disease, chronic bronchitis, emphysema and pneumonia, and can contain potentially harmful substances, including cancer-causing chemicals. Fine PM2.5 particulates, the type emitted by forest fires, are smaller than the width of human hair.

Seniors and children are the most vulnerable groups, but individuals with pre-existing conditions such as emphysema, asthma and heart conditions, also can be affected.

Battalion of $10,00 air monitors

ADEQ is using Environmental Beta Attenuation Monitors, known as E-BAMs, to track air quality in areas considered vulnerable to wildfire outbreaks throughout the state. The agency has eight of these portable E-BAMs in the field and two others in reserve if needed. As of June 20, they were located in Springerville,

St. Johns, Clifton, Show Low, Prescott, Flagstaff, Sedona and Camp Verde. Each unit costs about $10,000, Shaffer says

Robot-looking PM2.5 monitors are more advanced technologically than those used to check emissions levels in the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski Fire, and can be moved quickly from place to place.

“The way that process works is that there is an intake on the machine that filters out the undesired contaminants while isolating the particles to be tested,” Shaffer explains. “The particles then attach to a tape and are counted before being transmitted by cellular communications to ADEQ’s data center in Phoenix.”

Comparing the air quality from the Wallow Fire to the quality of air affected by traditional pollutants, including dust and carbon monoxide, Shaffer says wildfire smoke is much worse.

“The concentrations of PM2.5 are some of the highest we’ve ever seen in Arizona,” he says. “The air quality has been extremely hazardous to public health. Ozone is another health concern and we’ve worked with industry in the area to provide that data to others. The information we’ve seen shows higher levels of ozone, but not the dangerous levels we’ve seen with PM2.5.”

Because prevailing winds move from the southwest to the northeast, the Phoenix area was spared any fallout from the Wallow Fire. The worst impacts were in eastern Arizona and parts of New Mexico, including Albuquerque, Shaffer says. But traces were also noted as far away as Denver, Omaha and eastern Kansas.

There was some movement of the smoke to the south of Springerville/Eagar, and ADEQ placed a PM2.5 air quality monitor in Clifton to measure the effects in the Clifton/Morenci area.

In tackling the Wallow Fire, ADEQ worked in conjunction with local county health departments, Apache County most notably, which issued smoke advisories.

“We had an existing PM-10 monitor in Springerville to get readings targeted at wood smoke from residences and businesses during times of burning wood for heating,” Shaffer says. “We put the

PM-2.5 monitors in to track the contamination levels produced by the Wallow Fire in both Springerville and St. Johns, 30 miles to the north.  Later, we put the other one in at Clifton.”

Shaffer, who observed Wallow Fire-caused air pollution first hand to check on ADEQ air quality monitors, says: “On many occasions, visibility in Springerville had been reduced to one block.”

ADEQ shifts roles during wildfires

Under the leadership of ADEQ Director Darwin, the state agency’s role is to monitor the situation and provide technical support to area command officials and the State Emergency Operations Center (EOC).

“Alerts come from public health experts in the EOC,” Darwin says. “We’re also active in the multi-state smoke Joint Information Center. We work with the national Forest Service, Colorado, New Mexico, and national Weather Service to predict smoke impacts for the coming days and identify areas of potential concern. If new areas become problematic, such as Clifton did, we provide monitoring data.”

When wildfires break out, ADEQ takes on a second role. “Our role in dealing with wildfires is as a source of information,” Darwin says. “We step outside our typical regulatory role and into our information gathering and dissemination role. It’s a crucial role. We try to do our best to station air quality monitors near fires to assist those who are making decisions about evacuations and about letting folks back into their homes — about whether the areas are safe. And we inform the public about what the air quality is in areas where they reside and information on what they can do to minimize the impact.”

The best advice for minimizing the impact of a wildfire, Darwin says, is to stay away. “We understand that is not always a good solution for people who have been displaced from their homes or could be displaced,” he says.

The next best suggestion is to wear a close-fitting mask that limits the amount of particulates getting into their lungs, Darwin says. Or, simply stay indoors, especially on high-pollution days. Air-conditioning units have some level of filtration, but Darwin strongly cautions against using swamp coolers, which pull air in from the outside.

Aside from wildfires, the worst pockets of air pollution in Arizona are in populated areas. “The biggest sources of air pollution, unfortunately, are the cars that we drive,” Darwin says. “We live in a desert environment. As we disturb the soil, we are creating particulate matter — or dust problems. The natural desert is not nearly as dusty as an area disturbed by human contact. Our very existence — working and living in an area — is causing dust issues.”

Darwin says ADEQ is not seeing elevated levels of particulates around Sky Harbor International Airport, but in the past has detected a problem in the Salt River bottom near 43rd Avenue. “That’s our most problematic monitor,” he says. “We don’t know why. We’ve done our best to study the issue. We’ve installed additional monitoring there, and have not seen elevated levels at 43rd Avenue in the past 18 months.”

Regarding the quality of air in Arizona compared to 10 years ago, Darwin notes that the population has increased during the past decade. “Generally, our air quality has improved,” he says. “That doesn’t mean we’re sitting on our laurels and claiming victory. We’re very aggressive in doing whatever we can to improve air quality throughout the state, especially in Maricopa County.”

Cars reign as biggest Valley polluters

Darwin says that cars are the biggest polluters, and that tougher anti-pollution standards imposed on the auto industry by the federal government have been a key factor in achieving improved air quality. “That’s been a big improvement,” he says.

There have been sporadic indications where standards were exceeded periodically at monitors throughout Maricopa County, but none that would trigger a federal warning. Federal regulations allow a location to exceed the standard three times in three years. “If you have a fourth exceedance, you’re in nonattainment,” Darwin says.

Once the EPA determines that an area is out of compliance, the state typically has up to five years to correct the problem, Darwin says. “It’s a lengthy, time-consuming process,” he says.

The withholding of federal highway funds is considered a possibility if a state fails to get back into compliance. The EPA sets ambient air quality standards throughout the country. It’s the job of ADEQ to monitor the air to determine if the state is in compliance with those standards.

“If not,” Darwin says, “we develop boundaries to define what areas are not in compliance, and then we write a plan that describes how we are going to achieve those standards over time. The plans are basically up to the states on how we’re going to do it.”

For example, the vehicle emissions program in Maricopa and Pima counties is an integral part of the state’s plan to achieve attainment for the ozone standard. In addition, the construction industry in Maricopa County is required to take steps to minimize dust as part of a plan to achieve or maintain compliance with particulate matter standards.

The ADEQ chief has some suggestions for what Arizonans can do to improve air quality.

“The auto is still the biggest cause of air pollution in the Valley,” Darwin says. “Make sure your auto operates efficiently.”

He mentions eco-driving, which is a way of driving that reduces fuel consumption by up to an estimated 10 percent, greenhouse gas emissions and accident rates.

Don’t gun your car when pulling away from a stop light and don’t slam on the brakes at the next light, Darwin says. Practice more-steady driving and make sure tires are properly inflated

“When we issue a high ozone pollution alert, fuel your car in the evening,” Darwin says. “When it’s cooler, it lowers the volatilization of gasoline going into vehicles.”

Darwin notes that gas stations in Maricopa County are required to have vapor recovery systems on pumps to minimize the escape of fumes. “But,” he adds, “no system is perfect.”

ADEQ Responsibilities Clean air responsibilities of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality include:

• Collecting quality assured and precision ambient air monitoring and management of those data.
• Preparing pollution forecasts to help people limit their exposure to air pollution and air pollution sources to manage their emissions.
• Conducting and collaborating on research and analyses to evaluate pollution sources and their impacts on public health and welfare.
• Investigating complaints and violations of, and achieving compliance with Arizona’s air pollution laws.
• Issuing permits to industries and other facilities, and for open burning activities that protect public health and welfare.
• Operating and maintaining accurate, convenient, and affordable vehicle emissions inspections programs.
• Developing air quality plans and rules through partnerships, collaboration and public involvement.

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