Butte County received a whopping "F" on the American Lung Association’s State of the Air report card for 2011. This grade is calculated by collecting ozone and particulate matter (PM) data from various sites throughout the county. The air monitoring devices which measure these pollutants are located in Chico, Paradise and Gridley, and are operated by the California Air Resources Board (CARB).
The largest source of fine particulate pollution during the winter is smoke from residential wood combustion, says Bob McLaughlin, Assistant Air Pollution Control Officer at Butte County Air Quality Management District (BCAQMD). The smaller the PM particles, the more deeply they can penetrate the lungs to negatively impact lung function. Ozone, another major air pollutant, is produced when common air contaminants react in the presence of sunlight. It’s the PM and ozone that make it hard to breathe for people suffering from asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and other respiratory conditions.
Pat Koskinen is an Oroville resident who has been suffering from COPD for 12 years. Her difficulty breathing and "shortness of breath is exacerbated by smoke from fireplaces in my neighborhood," as well as "when the rice farms burn. I go to pulmonary rehab at the Enloe Center in Chico, but there are no facilities like this in Oroville," she says. From 1999 to 2008, hospitalizations from COPD in Butte County have been significantly higher than the state average.
Roughly 17 percent of Butte County residents have been diagnosed with asthma. California Breathing reported 215 asthma hospitalizations in Butte County in 2010, 44 percent of whom were children younger than 17. Children are especially vulnerable to developing asthma because they have a smaller lung capacity and higher breathing rates than adults.
Julia Murphy of the Butte Environmental Council says, “It’s well known that Butte County has been exceeding particulate matter air emissions regulations for years. Even if we did address all our own air quality issues, we’d still be inheriting pollution that blows in from Sacramento.” Chico’s geographical location at the base of the foothills allows air pollutants to accumulate more readily than in other Butte County cities.
Weather, specifically high pressure systems, little to no wind, and low precipitation, also contributes to poor air quality in Butte County. The inversion layer that develops acts like a lid on a bowl, said McLaughlin, concentrating air pollution close to the Earth’s surface.
Nancy Evens, who lives in Chico, also feels the impact of wood smoke in her neighborhood. She developed asthma six years ago after living in Butte County for many years. Since then, she has had to curtail her outdoor activities in the winter because her asthma is intensified by the smoke. It can be so thick on high pressure days, she says, that "you can see it at night hanging above street lamps and you can definitely smell it." Many California communities have successfully improved regional air quality through wood stove buy-back programs, significantly reducing negative health effects, says Evens.
The BCAQMD administers the “Check Before You Light” program from November to February, requesting residents to voluntarily refrain from using wood burning stoves because of the potential for poor winter air quality. The problem is that many of us can’t afford heating our homes without wood burning stoves. Although the BCAQMD regulates agricultural burning, as well as industrial emissions, two large contributors to regional air pollution, it is impossible for them to measure the impact of residential burning on our poor air quality.
Dr. Matthew Fine, Chief Medical Officer and pulmonologist at Oroville Hospital works with patients suffering from COPD and asthma. It is difficult for one physician caring for individual patients to see the link between poor quality and respiratory conditions at any given time, he says, even though there is a strong suspicion that air pollution exacerbates COPD. Although he would prefer better air quality in Butte County, there are some factors we just cannot control, such as our location in the Central Valley. “I am happy about seeing more stringent regulations on car emissions and I would like to see more restrictions on residential wood burning on poor air quality days,” he says.
He encourages his patients with COPD not to use wood burning stoves, because it may severely aggravate symptoms. “My patients have trouble breathing when people in their neighborhood use wood burning stoves. I would like to see a program to help people afford to use gas or electric heating systems so that they don’t have to use wood burning stoves in the winter, when particulate pollution is especially high.”