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Bad month: November highlighted need for action on air

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Posted: Sunday, December 2, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 4:15 pm, Fri Jan 25, 2013.

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner editorial

November was a poster child for arguments favoring action to clean up the air in Fairbanks.

The month was among the coldest Novembers on record, and it featured strong and persistent inversions that trapped fine air pollutants in our populated areas. The result was day after day of unhealthy air.

Some want the community to accept this bad air because there is nothing we can do about the inversions. However, as the borough’s top air quality official said at a meeting in North Pole last week, blaming inversions for the bad air is like blaming gravity for being overweight.

Yes, the physical universe in which we live is a given. Our behavior is not.

The Fairbanks North Star Borough is literally begging people to burn wood more cleanly. It offers people thousands of dollars to replace their old wood stoves or outdoor boilers. It is pondering more actions, but voters last month severely curtailed the options.

At the same time, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is demanding a plan in short order that must contain realistic ways to meet air quality standards.

Complying with the legal terms of the EPA mandate will be difficult. But let’s set that aside for the moment and just look at the problem itself.

As of 1 p.m. Friday, the sensor outside the fire station at Hurst and Dawson roads, just east of the city of North Pole, had found 104 micrograms of fine particulate matter in every cubic meter of air it sucked up during the previous hour. That meant the air fell in the “unhealthy for sensitive groups” category — which ranges from 81 to 175 micrograms per cubic meter. That was an improvement from the previous day, when the hourly samples topped out at 182, putting the air the “unhealthy” range (176-300) for everyone. The numbers were even higher earlier in the week, cresting 200 during some hours.

Good air quality, on a 24-hour average, ranges from zero to 15.4 micrograms, and moderate air quality is 15.5-34.5. The EPA’s standard for a 24-hour average is 35 micrograms. For much of November, air in the Fairbanks area was well above that.

Most of this fine particulate matter comes from wood smoke. There are some studies that suggest smoke from wood is not as bad for human health as smoke from diesel. No one would be surprised if that were the case.

However, that does not mean wood smoke is benign. Thousands of studies have demonstrated the effects of this fine particulate matter. It gets in a person’s blood, literally, making people more susceptible to a variety of ailments.

From 2003 to 2008, Fairbanks Memorial Hospital data showed that for every 10 microgram per cubic meter increase in the mean 24-hour level of fine particulate matter level, “there was a 7 percent increased risk for a cerebrovascular disease-coded visit in persons aged less than 65 years, a 6 percent increased risk for a cerebrovascular disease-coded visit in persons aged greater than 65 years and a 6 percent increased risk for a respiratory tract infection-coded visit in persons aged less than 65 years,” according to an analysis by the state health department’s epidemiology section completed in 2010.

With fine particulate levels regularly bouncing up by many times more than 10 micrograms, these are numbers we ignore at the peril of many people in the community.

The situation isn’t getting better, contrary to optimistic declarations from those who successfully advocated a ballot measure that further tied the borough’s hands in October. One cold month has demonstrated that.

With the borough’s options limited, it’s time for the state to take more aggressive action. It could start by getting serious about requiring the foulest polluters — those with improperly used outdoor boilers — to clean up their stacks.

We can’t let ourselves reach the point where we must ban all wood burning during cold weather, as has occurred in Juneau.

Unless we get more aggressive about fixing this problem with some finesse, that’s what the public interest and our public agencies will demand that we do.

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