Pierce County students smoke out what’s behind indoor air pollution

Will Handford shows one of his photos of smoke in a presentation at Grace Moore Library in Tacoma on Tuesday. It’s part of the Wood Smoke Photovoice project involving “youth citizen scientists” and sponsored by the University of Washington Tacoma.
Will Handford shows one of his photos of smoke in a presentation at Grace Moore Library in Tacoma on Tuesday. It’s part of the Wood Smoke Photovoice project involving “youth citizen scientists” and sponsored by the University of Washington Tacoma.

Ten Pierce County middle and high school students got a chance to become citizen scientists as part of a project sponsored by the University of Washington Tacoma.

They measured the amount of a trace element from wood smoke inside their homes and found it present in indoor air samples — even during a burn ban.

Then, they scoured their neighborhoods and their imaginations to produce photographs illustrating their findings and their feelings about wood smoke pollution.

Finally, each student wrote a short essay reflecting on their experience. The student-collected data, photos and essays were on display at a public event held at the Grace Moore Branch Library in Tacoma on March 1.

“I was surprised,” said Derrick Crocklem Jr., an eighth-grader at Truman Middle School in Tacoma. “We have a fireplace, but we don’t use it. It was coming from outside.”

Derrick’s photo, shot from a car window during a trip to Idaho, shows a curtain of fog enveloping mountain peaks. That image reminded him of smoke.

“The mountain is covered with smoke and maybe the mountain is spraying smoke,” he wrote.

The project, titled Wood Smoke Photovoice, was designed to raise awareness of how smoke from wood-burning stoves, fireplaces and outdoor bonfires can affect air quality and human health. While only one student reported a wood stove in use at home, all found traces of wood smoke inside their homes.

Until last year, much of Pierce County was under scrutiny for failure to meet federal air quality standards — one of only 32 areas in the country. A campaign to clean up the air included helping people remove or replace old wood stoves with cleaner-burning devices, but the program ran out of money. A proposal now before the Legislature would add new funds to the wood stove buyback program.

The campaign to reduce air pollution caused by wood smoke also employs periodic bans on wood burning in a smoke reduction zone that includes Tacoma, Parkland, Spanaway, Fife, Milton, Lakewood, Puyallup, South Hill and other nearby areas.

Even though air quality has improved, wood smoke still plays a large part in the region’s air pollution problem, according to the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency. And even levels that fall below the federal threshold can still produce health effects. During the fall and winter months, the Tacoma area sees a spike in pollution from wood, which accounts for more than half of its fine-particle pollution on the average winter day.

Robin Evans-Agnew, an assistant professor in UWT’s nursing and health care leadership program, said the students brought fresh eyes to the issue.

“They took what they were told by the adults, and re-examined it,” he said. “They begin to teach us new ways of looking at things.”

Combining art and science in the Wood Smoke Photovoice project was a way of empowering young people to speak out about a problem that affects us all, he added.

Students began meeting in October to learn about wood smoke pollution and to learn how to use the monitoring equipment. Two samples were collected during a burn ban in November, and one during a period in December when there was no ban.

Students used a device that measured a substance called levoglucosan, a byproduct of wood burning that is often used as a marker for airborne pollution from smoke. They were trained to set up the device in their homes, and sample indoor air quality for 24 hours.

Indoor readings ranged from a low of 10.8 nanograms per cubic meter of air in South Tacoma to 3,146 nanograms per cubic meter of air in Puyallup. Evans-Agnew said it’s not known whether those levels are harmful and studies of the substance are in their early stages.

Lab analysis of the samples was performed by the Center for Urban Waters in Tacoma.

Some student photos were literal illustrations of wood smoke, including one who shot a picture of his neighbor’s chimney spewing smoke. Others focused on the science, including an image of the portable measuring device and another of laboratory test tubes. Still other photos were symbolic of how students felt about wood smoke pollution.

Jackie Smythe, an eighth-grader at Visitation Catholic STEM Academy in Tacoma, found wood smoke pollution was minimal inside her home. But she was curious, so she took the monitoring equipment outside, and the readings were much higher.

“It shocked me,” she said.

She shot a photograph through a pair of glasses to illustrate her findings. In her essay, she wrote that “everyone has different points of view on everything… My view on woodsmoke is: it needs to be minimized, it still affects our air, or better yet it needs to stop.”

Jackie also shot a photo of an outdoor fire in a homeless camp. But she doesn’t fault the homeless for trying to keep warm.

“They have no other source of heat,” she said. “It’s not really their fault — it’s ours.”

Her Visitation classmate and friend Hannah Jay shot her photo while the students visited the lab at the Center for Urban Waters. It’s shot from waist level, looking down at two pairs of sneakers worn by the two friends.

“I took a picture of our shoes,” Hannah said. “It symbolizes us standing together, standing up for what we believe in — and being against air pollution as something affecting our community.”

Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635, @DebbieCafazzo

Tacoma-Pierce County Smoke Reduction Zone

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