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Breathe where you live

Last month I explained how Southern California food can’t shake the salt over Portland’s casual cuisine – likely due to differences in water. After gushing over the smell of breezy pine forests this summer,  I expected to dig up similarly glowing reports for Oregon air quality. The results were a bit disappointing. Yet the research uncovered a wealth of resources we can all use to monitor our #1 requirement for life.

Air quality maps tell the truth

We are fortunate to now have access to government-based visualization tools like AIRNow and EPA AirExplorerAIRNow displays air quality maps similar to the radar maps used to track passing storms in local or national regions. Forecasts provide useful health messages for sensitive individuals. For analyzing different time periods, historical air quality data is available in map form.

For number crunchers, the EPA plots up-to-date air quality indices for ozone, PM2.5, and nitrogen dioxide for specific counties for different time periods. The data is displayed visually over one-year periods which helps reveal seasonal patterns.

Surprisingly, the lush Northwest air can occasionally be as toxic as our notorious LA “oozone.” While the summer heat raises pollution here in Orange County, the cold winter months degrade the air quality in Portland. The primary pollutants in Southern California are ozone from motor vehicles and industry – aka smog. Ozone is considered good or bad based on its location in the atmosphere, and ground-level ozone is definitely “bad.” The hot summer climate acts as a catalyst for the formation of ozone from nitrogen and volatile organic compounds.

Portland has a few summer spikes in ozone, but a bigger concern is the accumulation of fine particulates (PM2.5) when the weather cools. These seasonal pollution patterns are primarily a product of wood-burning stoves. In fact, the problem escalated until Oregon recently became the first state to require proper certification for wood burning stoves, and all noncertified wood stoves must be removed from properties prior to the close of sale. The newer, certified wood stoves reduce fine particles by 70%, though still not as clean as pellet, oil, or gas furnaces and stoves. Other areas of the country may benefit from this model to reduce regional pollution.

Pinpoint the poison

Local air quality reports make the nitty gritty when dissecting the formula we breathe. For example, Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and Orange County’s South Coast Air Quality Management District show individual amounts of toxins in specified areas of the counties. One concern for Oregon is the harmful levels of sulfur dioxide produced from burning diesel, heating oil, and coal. Portland General Electric will be switching to low-sulfur coal this year. In fact, Oregon’s Environmental Quality Commission approved PGE’s plan to shut down their coal-burning plant by 2020 to reduce the local pollution and greenhouse gases. This is the youngest coal-burning plant in the nation to be shut down for environmental concerns, setting a precedent for the pursuit of alternative energy sources.

What do our kids breathe at school?

USA Today used an EPA model to track the level of toxic chemicals around schools in the United States. This wealth of data reveals how industrial pollution can be insidiously harming the health of children in our local neighborhoods. I discovered that our local elementary school was in the 76th percentile, with chromium compounds responsible for 46% of toxicity. The database also identified a nearby industrial polluter that emits these compounds!

Ozone – watch out for that tree!

Orange County suffers from spikes of ozone, but who knew it could also come from our trees? Eucalyptus, absurdly common (but not native) to Southern California, is the highest VOC-emitting tree of all species. VOCs are volatile organic compounds, and biogenic VOCs from trees like eucalyptus can contribute to ozone formation depending upon conditions.

Before landscaping, review information on VOC-emitting trees. Elm, lime, and tulip trees can help improve air quality by reducing temperature, intercepting particulate matter and, in some cases, emitting lower VOCs themselves.

Airborne allergens

Even when the air is free of ozone and sulfur dioxide, some of us still suffer from breathing seasonal pollen. The popular site graphs out allergy forecasts in vivid color by zip code, but it’s not consistent with my itchy watery eyes. For actual pollen and mold counts in nearby regions, I recommend the site by the National Allergy Bureau (NAB). While there are only a sprinkling of NAB counting stations in California, I’ve had success using San Diego’s results for many Orange County allergens. For example, shows elm as our only local allergen today, though my entire family is sneezing without an elm in sight. NAB, however, shows both tree and weed pollen (pine, elm, sage, wormwood, goldenrod, aster, cocklebur, etc.) for its reading in San Diego two days ago. Many of these plants are abundant in my neighborhood canyons as well – and likely the culprit for our sinus misery.

Realistically, every home has a unique pollen and mold count and it’s up to us to identify our trigger periods in the short term. Until we have organizations like the NOAA monitoring airborne particles, we’re limited to scattered data from volunteer-based counting and general predictions based on regional biology and weather trends.


What you can’t see can hurt you. Plan your activities and vacations with the air in mind – bookmark AIRNow for air readings and forecasts. If you suffer from seasonal pollen or mold allergies, check out for general forecasts or NAB‘s local counts to see exactly what’s blowing through. Review the EPA resources to help reduce emissions, and get involved with your community to support air quality!

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