Fireplace smoke, fireworks force many people in Phoenix area to spend holidays indoors
Alex Loaiza-Compean was born on New Year’s Eve. He's a funny and warm 12-year-old, according to his mother, Ana Loaiza-Compean. He plays soccer, rides his bike, and when his family visits Mexico, zips around on a motorcycle.
He also deals with moderate to severe asthma. He takes medication for it, but it means while other kids are out reveling in year-end fireworks and bonfires, Alex is forced to celebrate his birthday indoors.
“It's the hardest birthday ever, because he wants to have a party,” Ana Loaiza-Compean said. “There's the fireworks and then there's all these chimneys burning and everybody’s having fire pits … It's a sad case of where he loves all that stuff, but he can't participate in it so much because otherwise the next few days he’s going to be coughing and phlegming and just not healthy at all.”
New Year's Eve is one of what the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality calls the “Big Four,” the days at the end of the year when air pollution levels are typically high: Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.
Since 2010, ADEQ has issued high pollution advisories six times on Christmas Eve, seven times on Christmas Day, eight times on New Year’s Eve and 11 times on New Year’s Day. Those advisories mean air pollution is above the federal Environmental Protection Agency threshold.
Last year on New Year’s Eve, Maricopa County recorded measurements of 222 micrograms per cubic meter of PM 2.5, the smallest type of particle pollution, or particulate matter, according to ADEQ. That's more than six times the federal standard, which only allows 35.5 micrograms/cubic meter.
PM 2.5, which often comes from smoke, is considered the most dangerous type of air pollution because it can settle deep in people’s lungs.
“In the short term, (air pollution) irritates the lungs,” said Dr. Edward Carter, a pediatric pulmonologist at Valleywise Health. “If you have an underlying condition, that can trigger an attack. And if you don't, you just have normal lungs, but you're out there day in and day out, it can almost predispose you to develop asthma, COPD.”
COPD is a chronic inflammatory lung disease and one of the ailments triggered by pollution.
These high levels of PM 2.5 late in the year are primarily caused by residential wood-burning and fireworks, according to ADEQ and the Maricopa County Air Quality Department.
To reduce levels of pollution, Maricopa County often declares "no-burn" orders on these four days, when residents are prohibited from burning wood for recreational purposes. The county’s guidelines for imposing no-burn days are more stringent than ADEQ’s high pollution advisories, declared when PM 2.5 is at 30.1 micrograms per cubic meter and PM-10 pollution — made up of larger dust particles — is at 119 micrograms per cubic meter.
“No-burn days in Maricopa County are issued when air quality forecasting indicates that air quality standards for smoke pollution are likely to be exceeded,” said Ari Halpert, a communications officer for the county Air Quality Department.
On no-burn days, it’s illegal for Maricopa County residents to use wood-burning fireplaces, fire pits or chimineas — all sources of high levels of PM 2.5 — for non-business purposes. Residents are still allowed to use electric, gas and propane devices.
The county receives hundreds of complaints for violations of no-burn days, but doesn’t often issue fines. It has started two programs to encourage cleaner fuel, including a program to retrofit residents’ fireplaces for natural gas and an offer of $75 vouchers for propane fire pits.
Last year’s particularly high level of pollution on New Year’s Eve was partially due to weather patterns, but it's also possible that more people used fireworks than normal, according to Matt Pace, a meteorologist for ADEQ.
“There were a lot of people more than likely celebrating getting rid of 2020 and coming into 2021, because it was such a rough 2020,” Pace said.
Maricopa County and ADEQ urged people to leave fireworks to professionals.
“When it comes to fireworks, we urge the public to focus on finding other ways to entertain themselves and instead leave the fireworks to the professionals," Halpert said. "Because there is a difference between fireworks that we see by professionals and those personal fireworks.”
Not cited: County gets hundreds of complaints on no-burn days. Where are fines?
Why is air quality worse in the winter?
Air quality can be particularly bad in the winter because of winter air inversions, according to Paul Iñiguez, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service.
Inversions are boundary layers in the atmosphere that trap pollution. These boundaries are formed when the sun warms the air, causing it to gradually expand upward throughout the course of the day. The inversion floor is the ground, and the ceiling is determined by the strength of the sun.
“You see the smog, haze over the city, the pollution, brown cloud kind of stuff. Wherever you see the top of that, it's really telling you where the top of that inversion layer is,” Iñiguez said.
In the wintertime, days are shorter and the sun generates less heat. This lowers the inversion ceiling.
The inversion ceiling is typically 10,000 to 12,000 feet high in the summertime, sometimes even reaching 15,000 feet during the hottest days. In the winter, these inversions might drop to 3,000 to 4,000 feet.
When the inversion ceiling is lower, it limits the space pollutants can spread, causing air pollution to concentrate.
“If I had a gallon of water and I put a teaspoon of salt in there, you might not be able to taste it,” Carter said. “But if I give you a shot glass worth of water, or two ounces, and put the same amount of salt in there, you're probably going to taste it. So that's kind of like this idea why it's much more noticeable.”
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The fight for cleaner air
But no-burn days only constitute part of the pollution that asthmatics experience year-round.
Particulate matter pollution is primarily a problem in the winter. In the summer, ozone presents a bigger problem, because it thrives on sunlight. PM-10, more commonly known as dust, is a concern year-round.
Loaiza-Compean said asthma significantly affects her son Alex’s life. He regularly misses 30 or more days of school per year, she said, especially when the seasons change in September, February and March.
“Once his asthma attacks start, his cough doesn't go away for a long time,” Loaiza-Compean said. “He coughs so much that he throws up. And he coughs up so much that it’s just super disturbing for the class.”
She uses ADEQ’s air quality hourly forecast to check pollution levels. If the forecast shows moderate levels of pollution, she doesn’t let Alex out of the house.
But many people likely don’t know when pollution levels are bad, said Carter, the pulmonologist. He doesn’t think it’s common for asthmatics to stay at home during the holidays.
“You can't tell by looking what's a bad day and a good day,” he said. “I have a lot of patients who will keep their kids with asthma inside when it's dusty or the wind's blowing and things like that, and when it’s hot. But not necessarily because they know it's bad pollution.”
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Masavi Perea, an organizing director for Chispa AZ, a Latino environmental justice group in Arizona, said it’s hard for asthmatics to miss out on social events during the holidays because of high pollution. He said more needs to be done apart from no-burn days.
“In our community, many of our members, unfortunately, they have asthma. So we have heard many stories about (high air pollution) on those days, they cannot go out,” Perea said. “But during the year, there are other days that are the same. I think no-burn is a good idea, but it's a very, I feel kind of naive idea. Because there are many other things that we need to do.”
Chispa has campaigned for schools to eliminate diesel buses and switch to electric vehicles. While Perea acknowledges that schools have several pressing priorities, he said they should look to federal grants for the money.
Perea called for structural reforms, including more public transportation and parks.
He said Maricopa County has become increasingly urban. “We have to act different," he said. "We have to act like a city. And when I say that we have to act like a city … I'm talking about all the structures. We need to have more electric buses, we have to have better parks, and we have to have more options.”
Zayna Syed is an environmental reporter for The Arizona Republic/azcentral. Follow her reporting on Twitter at @zaynasyed_ and send tips or other information about stories to email@example.com.
Environmental coverage on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. Follow The Republic environmental reporting team at environment.azcentral.com and @azcenvironment on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Phoenix area fireplaces, fireworks force many to spend holidays inside