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‘State of the Air' report gives failing grades to Washington for sooty particulate pollution

Mount Rainier in Washington state is surrounded in a haze of wildfire smoke, Thursday, Aug. 27, 2015.
Rachel La Corte
The Associated Press
Mount Rainier in Washington state is surrounded in a haze of wildfire smoke, Thursday, Aug. 27, 2015.

Warmer weather and wildfire smoke are causing more air pollution in Washington. Three metropolitan areas in the state have the worst air pollution in the nation. They made the top-15 list for particle pollution in this year’s “State of the Air” report from the American Lung Association, which looks at both particle pollution and ozone.

The main cause driving the rising levels of short-term particulate, or soot, here is smoke from wildfires. Yakima came in sixth-worst, Seattle-Tacoma came in ninth and the Spokane Valley-Coeur d'Alene area tied with Sacramento-Roseville, California, for 15th place. California is the only other state with more than one area on the top-15 list; it has seven.

Washington also has seven counties that got failing grades in the report, because of soot. The F grades went to King, Snohomish, Pierce, Spokane, Kittitas, Clark and Yakima counties. This is the kind of pollution that can be washed or blown away, but also gets stuck when local air stagnates, such as in temperature inversions common in winter.

The data is from the past three years that could be verified, 2015-17. 

And those also were the three warmest years recorded in global history, says American Lung Association Advocacy director Carrie Nyssen.

"So to have that combined with the increase of particle pollution days and resulting in so many Fs in our state, it’s just real clear that climate change is here and it’s happening in Washington state," Nyssen said. “Our wildfire seasons are longer and they’re burning more intensely. And it’s not just happening where we live, it’s happening in other places and that smoke is infiltrating into our communities.”

Particle pollution can lodge deep in the lungs, triggering asthma attacks, heart attacks and strokes. The report states that overall, more than 4 in 10 Americans live with unhealthy air.

“And for me it creates the urgency that we need to take action," Nyssen said. "And to make sure that we’re doing things and implementing policies to make sure that everyone has healthy air to breathe.”

That includes personal actions, such as driving alone less, as well as collective efforts, such as advocacy to protect science-driven policies aimed at reducing carbon emissions, including the federal Clean Power Plan.

Nyssen says ozone pollution, or smog, is less of a problem here than in many other areas. But it's also on the rise. Smog forms when heat and sunlight react with hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides emitted by automobiles and other sources.

The annual State of the Air report says climate change is making it harder to protect human health from air pollution — and making cleanup more challenging. It also calls on Congress to protect and enforce the Clean Air Act.  

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to