July 4th air quality reached unhealthy levels in many places, despite lack of big public displays | KNKX

July 4th air quality reached unhealthy levels in many places, despite lack of big public displays

Jul 8, 2020

If you felt like there were more fireworks going off in your neighborhood this year around the Fourth of July, you’re probably right. Air quality data is in. And local agencies say even though all the major public displays were canceled, the small particle pollution registered was equivalent to previous years. 

The state Department of Ecology maintains a network of about 75 air quality monitoring sites, to keep track of particulate matter and other contaminants that can damage human health. Andrew Wineke, the communications manager for the program, says a new air quality monitoring map makes it easy to see the impacts from the fireworks. And he says they have shown consistent results. 

We saw this pattern around the state,” he said. Despite the lack of large communal fireworks displays, “there were still pretty significant levels of air pollution associated with the fireworks on the Fourth." 

In many places the air quality reached unsafe levels for people with sensitivities. And that could be especially concerning now, as more people may be facing respiratory distress due to the effects of COVID-19.

Weather is always a factor. This year, a temperature inversion locked air in place and contributed to the concentration of pollutants. And variations in the annual weather patterns make it difficult to draw strong conclusions about this year’s air quality on July 4 compared to years past, says Erik Saganic, who manages technical analysis at the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency.

But he still says the lack of major fireworks displays didn’t diminish the levels of small particle pollution normally associated with them. 

“It was actually a lot higher than I expected, honestly,Saganic said. 

It’s pretty clear there were a lot more people shooting off fireworks individually, in smaller gatherings, he says.

And also, we saw a lot of potentially extra barbecues being used in more recreational fires in their backyard that weren't shared as well," Saganic said. "So all that adds up after, you know, potentially a million different households in the region.” 

And those smaller sources of pollution originate closer to the ground and possibly impact people more than the high-flying displays. 

Longer term analysis will reveal more, including the levels of heavy metals produced. Sales data from fireworks dealers could be another source of clarity about the volume of private displays this year, compared to prior years.

The Puget Sound Clean Air Agency says their monitoring showed some of the highest concentrations of particulates recorded in lower-elevation urban areas and valleys around the Puget Sound, including Marysville, Kent and Auburn.

The state Department of Ecology has been asking residents since April to consider alternatives to outdoor burning of any kind during the coronavirus outbreak, to help preserve air quality in the face of COVID-19.