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News / Northwest

New state report: Wildfire smoke increased death rate in Spokane, across Washington

Washington Department of Ecology: Those in overburdened communities have more health problems than those in the state as a whole

By Amanda Sullender, The Spokesman-Review (Spokane)
Published: December 31, 2023, 5:35pm

Wildfire smoke is lowering life expectancy in Spokane and across Washington, according to a new report by the Washington Department of Ecology.

Focusing on air pollution of all kinds, the report highlights 16 communities across the state that are “overburdened” by air pollution and have a higher death rate as a result. Using data from 2016 to 2020, the report found those in these communities — including Spokane — live an average 2.4 years less than those in Washington as a whole.

Accounting for 15.5 percent of Washington’s population, those in the overburdened communities have more health problems than those in the state as a whole, especially lung and heart disease.

While the report details the effects of many air pollutants, the largest contributor to the pollution in Spokane is fine particulate matter from wildfire smoke. These particulates are smaller than 2.5 micrometers, which is 30 times smaller than a strand of hair, and can penetrate deeper in the lungs and in the bloodstream than larger particulates.

The report estimates 65 deaths occur each year among adults in Spokane and Spokane Valley that are associated with the fine particulate air pollution largely derived from wildfire smoke.

From 2020 to 2022, Spokane had an average of 7.3 days with unhealthy air quality, compared to 6.7 days in the state as a whole.

According to the report, the presence of long-term exposure to air pollution of this kind can cause asthma development in children and chronic cardiovascular conditions in adults. Short-term exposure can exacerbate asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and increase the risk of heart attack or a stroke.

Besides wildfire, other sources of these fine particulates in Spokane include residential wood burning, vehicles, trucks, trains and dust from construction and agriculture. Because wildfire smoke is typically seasonal, the biggest cause of particulates in the winter is smoke from home heating.

Because Spokane is surrounded by forests, the report anticipates “longer fire and smoke seasons in the decades ahead as the region becomes drier and warmer” because of climate change.

The inaugural report is mandated by the state Climate Commitment Act and will be updated every two years after a Department of Ecology review.

“The findings in this report underscore the importance of the strong air quality and environmental justice provision contained in the Climate Commitment Act,” Department of Ecology director Laura Watson said in a statement. “The Climate Commitment Act not only decreases harmful greenhouse gas emissions but also takes concrete steps to reduce air pollution that unfairly impacts the most vulnerable people in our state.”

Those who live in Spokane or the other 15 communities can participate in a Department of Ecology survey.

The 16 overburdened communities in the report include:

  • Spokane and Spokane Valley
  • Ellensburg
  • Everett
  • George and West Grant County
  • South King County
  • Mattawa
  • Moxee Valley
  • Northeast Puyallup
  • North Seattle and Shoreline
  • South Seattle
  • South and East Tacoma
  • Tri-Cities to Wallula
  • Vancouver
  • Wenatchee and East Wenatchee
  • East Yakima
  • Lower Yakima Valley