Smoke from fires in southern Oregon during 2020 settle over a farm further north in Washington. (Peter Stevens, Flickr)

Klamath Falls had as many elevated pollution days as cities like Phoenix, Cincinnati and San Antonio in 2020, according to a new report

The non-profit Environment America, part of the left-leaning Public Interest Network, used EPA air quality data taken from monitors in every state.

Despite fewer Americans using cars every day or undertaking major travel due to coronavirus restrictions, many parts of the American West experienced months of poor air due to wildfires. In Klamath Falls, residents spent nearly half a year in air deemed moderate to hazardous by the EPA, according to the report 

Sophie Goodwin-Rice is a health care associate with the Oregon State Public Interest Research Group Part of the national Public Interest Network. She knows for many, the data isn’t surprising. 

“You don’t need to tell people in southern Oregon, people living in Harney County, they lived it,” she said of areas heavily impacted by the Almeda Fire and the air quality issues that came with it. “What we hope is that this shows leadership around the state that it’s an issue. Having data like this is helpful because it isn’t just anecdotal.”

Two pollutants are singled out in the report for causing worse levels on the Air Quality Index, used by the EPA to determine the safety of air for breathing. Those pollutants are ground level ozone, a byproduct of combustion like that from running a car, and particulate matter, pollution smaller than 2.5 micrometers that can, over time, become deposited deep into the lungs, like particles from smoke and wildfire.

Particulate matter reached record highs in Portland in 2020 from fires across the region, according to the EPA. The EPA standard for healthy air is a 50 or below on the Air Quality Index, which goes from 0 to 500. Air is considered very unhealthy when it gets above 200 on the index. 

Researchers determined the number of days people spent in parts of the country where the levels were above 51. The report notes that the World Health Organization has stricter standards for what counts as bad air quality than the EPA and several interest groups like the American Lung Association recommend lower thresholds for acceptable pollution levels. 

Automobiles continue to be the primary cause of air pollution in the U.S., but as wildfires become larger and more frequent due to climate change, they may play a larger role in overall air quality in the years to come, according to the report. The report recommended addressing the root causes of climate change as a matter of dramatically improving air quality in Oregon and around the country.

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