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Saturday, April 4, 2020

Bellingham ties for first in cleanest air quality report

By Stella Harvey

Breathe in, breathe out. Bellingham’s air is among the cleanest in the country, according to the American Lung Association’s 2018 State of Air report.

Each year, the ALA compiles and analyzes data to inform people about their city’s air quality, according to its website.

This year, Bellingham tied for first place in both cleanest metropolitan areas in the U.S. for ozone and 24-hour particle pollution, according to the report.

Brian Heinrich, chair of the Northwest Clean Air Agency Board of Directors and deputy administrator of the City of Bellingham, said the American Lung Association’s report is great for Bellingham residents.

“When I look at the report, I think of what it means for folks who live here, particularly those at risk for respiratory illnesses,” Heinrich said. “For folks who suffer from asthma or any sort of lung ailment, [Bellingham] is a little bit of a respite.”

The NWCAA has been in charge of protecting the air in Island, Skagit and Whatcom counties since the passage of the Washington State Clean Air Act in 1967, according to their website.

Seth Preston, communications program manager at NWCAA, said this report is important for people across the country who need to know the state of the air where they live.

He said high levels of air pollution can make people’s existing health problems worsen over time, or even be the cause of new health problems for people who did not previously have a condition.

“The bottom line is pollution follows people,” Preston said. “Where you have more people, you are likely to have more pollution.”

The 2018 State of Air report examines levels of ozone and particle pollution found in official monitoring sites across the U.S. from 2014-16, according to the American Lung Association’s website. The report uses the most current data available for analysis.

Preston said it is important to take into consideration that the report does not include the 2017 wildfires in the area that sent smoke into the region. He said it will be interesting to see how the ALA takes those events into consideration in future reports.

Preston said ozone levels are a measure of how different chemicals react with sunlight and heat to combine with ground-level ozone, the air people breathe. He said these chemicals, also called volatile organic compounds, can be released during everyday tasks like filling a car with gas or running a lawn mower.

Twenty-four hour particle pollution measures what is in the air at a specific time and date and can be impacted by wood stoves not working properly, outdoor burns or industrial sites that release a lot of air pollutants, Preston said.

Heinrich said Bellingham’s geographic location near the bay, normal wind and air patterns and the fact there are no large polluters inside city limits are some reasons the air here is highly ranked.

For some students, this report confirms what they already thought about Bellingham.

Freshman Hayley Hagen said she is not surprised to hear Bellingham’s air is among the cleanest in the country.

“I think Bellingham is pretty clean. I don’t see a lot of pollution. And obviously Western is very green,” Hagen said.

Freshman Sky Singer did not think Bellingham would receive such a high ranking.

“I’m surprised, just considering how many people I know and see around smoking. I’m happy, but was not expecting that,” Singer said.

Preston said the Northwest Clean Air Agency works with more than 500 sources of air pollution to help limit the emissions from their operations. He said these efforts, combined with the natural geography and conditions in Bellingham, help keep the air clean.

Heinrich agreed, saying the agency has a very good working relationship with many industries within the Whatcom, Skagit and Island county region.

“I think one big takeaway is [that] this is a good example of how regulation can work,” Heinrich said. “We have a number of refineries in the area, as well as other industries that have an air-polluting component to their activity, but through regulation and cooperation this is a way we can make it work together.”

Preston said the report is a reflection that Bellingham is on the right track, but there is always room for improvement. He recommends everyone look at their own contribution to air pollution to keep the air clean for everyone.

“People tend to focus on the other person or industrial sources as the big source of pollution, but it’s vehicles and wood smoke that really play a major role,” Preston said.

For more information on the 2018 State of Air report, or to find out how your hometown ranks, visit the American Lung Association’s website.

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