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Smog Levels May Be Low In The Northwest But The Region Is Not In The Clear

Northwest communities are breathing easier than many places in the United States after federal regulators clamped down on ozone pollution, the main component of smog.

The Environmental Protection Area last week lowered the acceptable limit to 70 parts per billion. The new clean air standard is not as far-reaching as health and environmental advocates were calling for. But it’s more strict than many industry representatives wanted to see.

As of 2014, no region in Washington or Oregon were averaging greater than 65 parts per billion.

What is ozone?

“Ozone is gas that’s formed in the atmosphere, so it’s not emitted directly from a tailpipe or a stack," says Oregon Department of Environmental Quality Air Quality Manager David Collier.

But the raw components of ozone are. Oxides of nitrogen are made when things are burned, and volatile organic compounds are part of the fumes you smell at the gas station.

“That pollution goes up into the atmosphere and on hot days, especially when the air is stagnant, it kind of cooks and ozone is formed,” Collier says.

Atmospheric ozone is necessary for human survival – it protects us from harmful ultra-violet rays from the sun. But when ozone forms near the ground, it’s a health risk that’s better known as smog.

Ozone in the Northwest

Los Angeles is the spot many envision when they think smog. But places like Medford and Hermiston in Oregon and Enumclaw in Washington also see their share of smoggy days.

“It’s usually downwind from the metropolitan area where the traffic and industry is – is where the ozone measurements are the highest. Like in Seattle, it’s toward Mt. Rainier," says John Raymond of the Washington Department of Ecology.

Part of it is luck of geography and weather. But Oregon and Washington have also taken steps to fix air-pollution problems.

At the vehicle inspection station in Medford, cars and trucks work their way through the open bays. A technician plugs a long wire into the car’s on-board computer to ensure the emissions system is working like it should.

“In the beginning we had a lot of people come in, and they put little black tape over check engine light, or did all kinds of things," says Vehicle Inspection Program Manager Juergen Bigalke. "They failed, of course, because there was code in computer, you know, and we couldn't pass them. But right now, people know before they come over here, ‘Hey, I need to get that fixed.’”

Most vehicles pass, but some are flagged and their owners are required to get the emissions problem fixed before the state will renew their registration. Bigalke says the vehicle inspection station is making a difference.

“Look back 15 years, it was really bad. And that's why the program was installed. And it has cleaned up the air really nicely,” he says.

Looking to the future

That doesn’t mean the Northwest is totally in the clear; this year, wildfires are complicating the equation. Many regions, like the Puget Sound, have seen more smog because of the drifting smoke.

The EPA won’t necessarily hold communities accountable for smog caused by natural events like wildfire. But the pollution is still very real for people who have to breathe the air.

“When you think about the future growth of populations, growth of air pollution from all kinds of sources, and as summers get hotter and hotter, which drives more ozone formation." Collier says. "We want to be very mindful of being proactive, too — to try to prevent problems, even if we might be sitting good today.”

Copyright 2020 EarthFix. To see more, visit .

<p>The vehicle inspection station in Medford, Oregon.</p>

Jes Burns, OPB/EarthFix


The vehicle inspection station in Medford, Oregon.

<p>Medford Vehicle Inspection Program Manager Juergen Bigalke appears in an exhaust detection tool used to check emissions systems.</p>

Jes Burns, OPB/EarthFix


Medford Vehicle Inspection Program Manager Juergen Bigalke appears in an exhaust detection tool used to check emissions systems.

Jes Burns is a reporter for OPB's Science & Environment unit. Jes has a degree in English literature from Duke University and a master's degree from the University of Oregon's School of Journalism and Communications.