Health Component Missing from Biomass Air Quality Study
– by Diana Somerville
We will soon be making history here on the Olympic Peninsula, or becoming guinea pigs. Thanks to public pressure and legislative support, a two-year study of a unique aspect of our air quality may begin next month. The Olympic Region Clean Air Agency (ORCAA), working with University of Washington atmospheric scientists, will look at changes downwind from biomass cogeneration plants adjacent to the existing paper mills in Port Angeles and Port Townsend. These plants will generate electricity by burning smaller trees and forestry waste with construction and demolition debris often added to the mix.
Nippon in Port Angeles and Port Townsend Paper are the major, easily identified sources of pollution in each community’s relatively clean air. Neither mill has yet fired up its biomass incinerator — and that provides a unique opportunities to study significant, and as-yet-unexamined aspects of their impact on the quality of our air.
Nationally, the pulp and paper industry is the third largest energy consumer, after the petroleum and chemical industries, releasing millions of metric tons of carbon dioxide each year, as well as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and volatile organic compounds. According to Nippon’s calculations, their biomass incinerator will reduce the amounts of many pollutants that travel across Clallam and Jefferson counties.
The ORCAA study focuses on ultrafine nanoparticles, which means those less than 2.5 microns across. Smaller than pollen or germs, ultrafine nanoparticles are virtually weightless. Their behavior depends on what they’re made of – their chemical or biological composition – and whether the particle has a positive or negative electrical charge. Once aloft, who knows how far they can be carried.
The Journal of Nanoparticle Research provides a scientific forum for understanding and discussing nano-scale science and technology. In laboratories, researchers can control for these factors.
What goes up smokestacks and into the air is more difficult to control. Nippon’s preliminary figures show their plant is designed to decrease the total weight of particles released. But nanoparticles are virtually weightless, it’s their numbers that increases health risks.
Small Size, big impact
When it comes to human health, the size of the particles is crucial: Smaller ones are more insidious. “Smaller particles penetrate deeper into lungs, heart, and even brain to cause more health damage,” the Proposal for Ultrafine Particle Study in Jefferson and Clallam Counties noted.
Measuring nanoparticles is significant. Until recently, government agencies and policymakers have mostly ignored human health concerns associated with biomass incineration. The first ever Congressional briefing on the health impacts of biomass incineration was held just a year ago, The Biomass Monitor reports.
The elderly and the very young are particularly vulnerable to a host of health issues linked to airborne nanoparticles. Infant mortality, premature birth weight and permanent, non-reversible lung damage in children, as well as diabetes, obesity cognitive problems like autism, ADHD and early onset Alzheimer’s correlate with nanoparticle pollution, according to the National Institutes of Health and the American Heart Association.
Both Port Angeles and Port Townsend have had air monitoring stations measuring larger particles for years. Sequim resident Bob Sextro, an air quality engineer, says that two newer monitoring stations, one in Sequim and another in Port Angeles, will be outfitted with state-of-the-art instruments. These include optical particle counters and a nephelometer to measure particulates. An aethalometer will help researchers determine which particles come from biomass burning, fireplaces or diesel exhaust.
While the study will measure ultra-fine particles, what is missing is a critical health risk assessment. That means answering questions about front-line health issues: Are there increases in mortality, hospital admissions or asthma attacks after a biomass incinerator fires up? Will those levels change? Will babies’ birth weights decrease? Will infant illness or mortality change? Problems like autism or diabetes take longer to show up. Can those be tracked, too?
Nippon just began a roughly two-month startup process for its plant. Holding off a full-scale start until the new air quality study has begun would provide a unique, significant opportunity for researchers to gather clear baseline information. Even more important would be for the local mills to take this opportunity to examine the efficacy of their air quality improvements by funding health studies to complement ORCAA’s research.
Diana Somerville writes about creating more sustainable communities and our personal connection with the environment. A Clallam County resident, she’s a member of the National Association of Science Writers, the Society of Environmental Journalists, the American Society of Journalists and Authors and North Coast Writers. Reach her at www.DianaSomerville.com.