Think Out Loud

Citing racial health disparities, Multnomah County tightens wood smoke rules

By Sheraz Sadiq (OPB)
Feb. 18, 2022 12:26 a.m.

Broadcast: Friday, Feb. 18

Smoke coming from fireplaces and wood stoves has been linked to a host of health effects including heart attacks, strokes, high blood pressure and asthma attacks. Wood stoves more than 20 years old are no longer legal to sell or purchase in Washington.

The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners approved amending its wood smoke ordinance while acknowledging the disproportionate harm that air pollution has on low-income residents and communities of color.

Katie Campbell


On Thursday, the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved changes to its wood smoke ordinance while acknowledging racial health disparities from air pollution. The original policy had imposed a seasonal ban from October 1 through March 1 on burning wood in fireplaces, stoves or fire pits on days with poor air quality. That ban will now be extended year-round for days with poor air quality, eliminate so-called “green” days when no limits applied to burning wood and remove an exemption permitting the use of EPA-certified wood stoves. Last week, the commissioners adopted tougher emission standards for cancer-causing particulate matter in wood smoke and prioritized “reducing the cumulative burden of air pollution.” Joining us is Multnomah County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson and Jessica Guernsey, the Multnomah County public health director.

Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. In an effort to improve air quality, Multnomah County has tightened its rules around wood burning. In a unanimous vote yesterday, the board got rid of an exemption for EPA-certified wood burning stoves. It will no longer tell the public that it’s okay to burn wood on certain days. Burning will either be discouraged or prohibited, and all restrictions on burning extend year-round as opposed to only being in effect for half the year. For more on this revised ordinance and the thinking behind it, I’m joined by Jessica Vega Pederson, a Multnomah County commissioner representing District 3, and Jessica Guernsey, public health director for Multnomah County. It’s good to have both of you on the show.

Jessica Vega Pederson: Thanks Dave. It’s great to be here.

Jessica Guernsey: Thanks for having us.

Miller: Jessica Guernsey, let’s start with the health issues here. What are the effects of wood smoke on human health?

Guernsey: Thanks for asking the question. We know that wood burning is a major contributor to poor air quality here in Multnomah County, and really anywhere. The fine particulate matter that is part of burning wood creates multiple health impacts for vulnerable populations, small children and pregnant women. What we know is that the fine particles in wood smoke [are] so small that they can settle deep into your lungs and even get into your bloodstream and cause multiple health issues. In our board briefing, we talked about the leading causes of death and years of life lost. It can include things like heart disease, lung disease, even diabetes. So it directly aligns with the major chronic health conditions that we see.

Miller: How does wood smoke compare to other forms of air pollution like, say, emissions from diesel engines or heavy industry?

Guernsey: I know a lot of people don’t know this, but wood smoke is actually one of the major drivers for our poor air quality, like I said, in Multnomah County. This is far and away the largest contributor to the health outcomes that I was talking to in terms of poor air quality for Multnomah County. It’s one of the reasons we really zeroed in on this as a policy change.

Miller: How does Multnomah County’s air quality compare to other areas?

Guernsey: Multnomah County’s air quality in the state is not good. We have arguably the worst air quality in the state. EPA’s National Air Toxics Assessment recently found that Multnomah County has the highest cancer risk from air toxics in the state. So that is, again, one of the main reasons that we’re focusing on this particular change. In terms of how we compare in the nation, the American Lung Association recently released a report called State of the Air and it identifies Portland as a city as the 23rd worst city for some short term particulate pollution.

Miller: Jessica Vega Pederson, what have you heard from people in the community about how wood smoke in particular is impacting their health?

Vega Pederson: We’ve had so many incredible stories about people coming forward and advocating for the changes that we’re enacting at Multnomah County because they have personally experienced negative impacts. Last week, when we were passing a resolution around air quality and wood smoke, we heard a really touching story of a woman whose son died because of an asthma attack, and the loss that she still feels decades later, and how bad air quality contributes to those health issues. We hear from people who have chronic lung conditions who have to stay inside, pretty much have to be in their house, when there are no good air quality days happening. Just like what we all did when there were the fires a couple falls ago and we had to all stay inside. This is the reality for people many days of the year when air quality is bad. The advocacy that people have been doing on this issue at the county for the last several years has really opened my eyes – and I know [has] opened my colleagues’ eyes, too – to the significant impacts that wood smoke has on our air quality and the real simple steps that people can take to prevent that from happening and prevent people from having those negative impacts. We know from the stories that we’ve heard, we know from the data that we have, that people are impacted who are most vulnerable. Where we see the worst impacts of wood smoke are in low-income communities, BIPOC – Black, Indigenous, and People of Color – communities. Those stories have really helped shape the policy, and their advocacy has really helped drive this forward.

Miller: I want to hear more about the impact on specific communities and how this ordinance, the newly revised ordinance, is going to actually take that into account. But, Commissioner Vega Pederson, you co-authored the initial wood smoke ordinance with Commissioner Meieran in 2018, just four years ago. What changed between now and then that would warrant amendments to it?

Vega Pederson: I think we’re learning more and more about air quality and the negative impacts of PM2.5 particulates which [is] the size of particulate matter that we find from wood smoke. We’re learning more every single year about that. Especially because of COVID, we’ve also seen and understood the risk for respiratory illness in a way that we hadn’t two years ago. We had a couple of years to put the system into place, try it out and see how it was working, and then be able to make updates. You talked a little bit about the updates at the beginning of the segment. One of those is just to simplify the process, and that is going [from] a green/yellow/red system to just a yellow and red system. What that does is to make sure that we’re sending the message that there is no safe level of exposure to small particulate matter. These tiny particles that are small enough to get into our lungs and our bloodstream really do bring harmful substances into our body. We want to make sure that we’re sending a clear message that there’s no good day to burn, but we want to make sure that people are very clear [about] those yellow and red days: that they should reconsider burning on yellow days and on red days that they aren’t allowed to burn.


Miller: My understanding was that basically what this says is every day is a yellow day. Is that right? In other words, the sense I got was you’re essentially telling Multnomah County residents that, unless they have no other way to heat their homes, they should never be lighting a wood fire now – not in a backyard fire pit in August, not in a fireplace in December.

Vega Pederson: That’s not correct. We’re not changing the metrics of when a yellow or red date will be called. That is staying the same for now. It’s going to be tied to the EPA air quality index measures, so that’s staying consistent. But, instead of having green days where it feels like it’s telling people that it’s a ‘go ahead and burn and everything’s okay,’ we just took away that green-day designation because there really is no best day to burn. There is no healthy day to burn. So we’re keeping the same metrics, but we’re just changing our messaging. We want to make it clear to people that, because everybody deserves clean air all the time, and you can’t do that every day with wood smoke. We just want to change the messaging and really change the hearts and minds of how people are looking at, and thinking about, how they use their fireplaces and wood stoves.

Miller: Okay, so it is a subtle difference then. I’m glad for your correction because I had misunderstood this. You’re getting rid of the green day, the green light, which maybe the fear was that actually it seems like that’s encouraging people to burn wood. But you’re keeping the voluntary burn curtailments and the actual bans in place – the yellow and the red. So I want to focus on what used to be the green days, because there are a lot of those days out of the year; that’s the majority of time. When you say you want to change people’s hearts and minds, what do you want people to think on that bright clear… Let’s say that there is no wildfire smoke in the air on some random day in August. It’s a chilly night. People are in their backyard with their friends and they would normally have a fire in their fire pit. What do you want in their minds?

Vega Pederson: What we want in people’s minds is just the realization that any kind of wood burning puts harmful matter into our air. It’s something that we can breathe… within our own house. It’s something that impacts our neighborhood. We really want people to, when they think about a wood fire, they don’t think about the cozy aspect of it. They’re thinking about [how] that smoke that’s going up their chimney or that smoke that’s spiraling up their backyard is putting particulate matter into the air that gets into people’s lungs that causes people to have respiratory issues… To just be thinking about that and knowing that as they’re making that decision.

Miller: It’s almost like you want people to think about wood from wood-burning stove or a backyard fire the way now, hopefully, smokers think about secondhand smoke.

Vega Pederson: That’s exactly right. Secondhand smoke and the impacts of smoking on other people is a really good comparison. I also compare it to how people thought about seat belts. People didn’t think that seat belts were necessary. They didn’t even come in cars a lot of times. We had a shift in the perspective around wearing seat belts, knowing it’s an important tool for people to have. Same thing with smoking. It used to be so prevalent in our society. Then people realized the really damaging impacts of it, and we changed how we look at it as a society. I think that’s part of the work and the start of the work that we’re doing here at Multnomah County with these ordinance changes.

Miller: Jessica Guernsey, I want to zero back in on the maps here and what you found in terms of the parts of Multnomah County that are most impacted by wood smoke pollution. What do those maps look like?

Guernsey: We see maps that probably look similar to other maps. If you happen to watch our briefings around health issues, they look similar to some of those other maps where we see concentrations of impacts in East County and North Portland and some other areas. So this is not different from what we’ve seen with other health conditions that we address in those leading causes of death and years of life lost that I mentioned. As Commissioner Vega Pederson said, that’s one of the drivers of us doing this work – for this particular issue and other issues – understanding that the access that people have to health, and in this particular situation to clean air, is not shared necessarily. [Regarding] the health burden from wood smoke, I just wanted to mention something that I didn’t say before: Wood smoke from residential use, we know, is the third leading cause of health risk from air toxics in Multnomah County and one of the biggest sources of particulate matter pollution, particularly in colder months. So, this is not a small thing in terms of the overarching contribution to health risks. But again, we know that folks have either supports or exposures that are often determined by their zip codes. We sometimes say that your zip code can tell you more about your health than your genetics. This is no exception to that. We have high concentration areas where we know we need to do some additional work on a systems level so that it’s not determined by the individual on whether or not they’re able to have access to clean air in this particular situation.

Miller: Am I right that that overlap, in terms of low income residents and residents of color being more likely to be impacted by wood smoke, is because those same communities are more likely to rely on wood burning for heat?

Guernsey: I don’t know that there’s a direct correlation per se. There’s definitely some overlap. But we’ve been looking at our numbers in terms of economic need. We have an exemption annually for people and businesses that meet certain criteria. That would include a wood burning device as the only source of heat [for] the main living space in a household or commercial building. So there are exemptions for these. We’re really talking about ambient use of wood burning that we’re aiming a lot of this at because that is such a major contributor to the issues that we’re talking about.

Miller: Commissioner Vega Pederson, what can be done for low income residents who do currently rely on wood burning stoves or fireplaces and can’t afford to switch to a cleaner source of energy?

Vega Pederson: For a long time, that was the big question around how do [we] make sure that we’re helping with the air quality in people’s homes for people who didn’t have any other choice. It was an issue that I worked on when I was in the legislature and we talked about this as a statewide issue, too. Here in Multnomah County, we anticipate receiving $500,000 from the state of Oregon to fund a wood smoke change-out for low income residents. We’re going to have more information about that program in the near future. Getting those dollars was really thanks to the advocacy of State Senator Michael Dembrow and Commissioner Susheela Jayapal, who co-sponsored these most recent changes with me, to really take a look at the people within Multnomah County who do need help switching it out to a cleaner source of heat and getting that help to them.

Miller: There have been 110 yellow day voluntary burn curtailments in the last four years and I think about four red day – you cannot burn today – warnings. Do you have a sense, Commissioner Vega Pederson, of the extent to which residents actually follow those rules?

Vega Pederson: Well, that is a good question. We’re still looking at the data [regarding] changes in our air quality with the program as it is still relatively new. I think awareness is a key in that part, Dave. That’s why, at the county, we have actually put more money into education and outreach plans to make people aware of our wood smoke curtailment program. It’s not a lot of days, but those days where it’s in effect, we want people to know about it. We want people to be changing their behavior. One of the things that we’re going to do, especially with the simplified yellow/red system, is to be able to pair that with education and awareness-building for folks about the impacts of wood [smoke] and about the program that they need to be paying attention to. People can sign up to get an email notifying them of when it is a yellow day or when it is a red day. I’ve signed up for that. I get those all the time in my inbox, and it’s really good for me to pay attention, myself. So I encourage people to do that. We want to be pushing this information out to people so that they’re aware. Even with the changes to the program of going to a year-round program, we’re estimating – looking at 2020 for instance – if we had the program that we have now back then, there would have been about 45 yellow days and about eight red days there. So that just gives you a sense of the changes, and those changes are mainly just because of going to a year-round system.

Miller: Jessica Vega Pederson and Jessica Guernsey, thanks very much for joining us.

Vega Pederson: Thank you, Dave.

Guernsey: Thanks.

Miller: Jessica Vega Pederson is the Multnomah County commissioner representing District 3, one of the co-sponsors of new amendments to the county’s wood smoke ordinance. Jessica Guernsey is the Public Health Director for Multnomah County.

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