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A compendium of evidence: no burn restrictions are not a load of bunk

Dust storm approaching Phoenix during summer 2013. High levels of available dust are illustrative of Phoenix's air quality problem.
Dust storm approaching Phoenix during summer 2013. High levels of available dust are illustrative of Phoenix's air quality problem.
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

(Note: this article - original, preferred title A compendium of evidence countering claims that no burn restrictions are a load of bunk - is the second installment of an intended 4 part series. The first part may be found here.)

Phoenix has demonstrably poor air quality. The U.S. EPA currently classifies Maricopa County as a “nonattainment area”* for PM-10 particulate matter pollution – meaning that the concentration of PM-10 pollution in the County exceeds the pertinent EPA National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS), and is therefore considered a threat to public health.

(*Maricopa County faces the possible loss of federal highway funds as punishment for not meeting EPA air quality standards.)

According to EPA data, current as of 2012, PM-10 pollution in the Southwest U.S. region* saw an increase in concentration during the 2000-2012 time period. This increase saw PM-10 levels rise above the NAAQS set by EPA – and was in sharp contrast to a nationwide trend of lessening PM-10 concentrations.

(*The Southwest region is comprised of Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico; which region obviously encompasses metropolitan Phoenix. Despite the inclusion of a broader geographic region, your correspondent nonetheless believes this dataset is pertinent – given that Phoenix itself is still a nonattainment area for EPA’s NAAQS.)

Particulate matter pollution is separated into two categories – PM-10 and PM-2.5 – reflective of the size in micrometers of the respective pollutant particles. Generally, PM-10 signifies coarser particles found near roadways and dusty industries. By contrast, PM-2.5 particles are finer and can be emitted by sources such as: “fuel combustion from motor vehicles, power generation, and industrial facilities, as well as from residential fireplaces and wood stoves.”

Notwithstanding the above distinctions in emission-source, Maricopa County high pollution advisories for both PM-10 and PM-2.5 contain identical proscriptions limiting: the use of leaf blowers, residential wood-burning, and off-highway vehicle use.

Within an excellent series of reports for the Arizona Republic, Shaun McKinnon enumerated the health-related impacts linked to the Valley’s air pollution problem. Cited herein are public health authorities who have demonstrated that people living in areas with fine particulate air pollution live shorter lives – which shorter lives constitute the “unequivocal” harmful effects of poor air quality. In addition, on “bad air” days, physicians report more emergency room visits for breathing problems, noting an increased prevalence of “coughing, wheezing, [and] more frequent attacks of asthma or bronchitis.”

Further, Phoenix’s sprawling development pattern, with its manifold highways, places a large number of residents in dangerous proximity to major roadways. Due to a combination of Sonoran Desert dust kicked up by human activity in the region and a surfeit of highly-traveled roadways, metro Phoenicians living in proximity to major roadways face a dual threat from airborne coarse dust particles and harmful vehicle exhaust. As McKinnon notes, pollution in these “danger zones”* has been linked to “heart disease, premature births, asthma attacks and shortened lives.”

(*McKinnon reports: anyone living within 500 meters of a major freeway is living in a “risk zone” – meaning that in metropolitan Phoenix, about 300,000 people face the health impacts described above.)

All of which is to say: Phoenix has an air quality problem – and air quality problems come with negative impacts on public health. Controlling certain emissions – say, PM-2.5 particulates sourced from wood-burning fireplaces on days with the potential for heightened pollution - is a rational and necessary response.

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