Frequently Asked Questions - Strategic Plan

During our previous strategic plan community workshops, we heard several frequent questions from participants about a variety of air quality topics. 

These same questions and answers are also available in Spanish, Vietnamese, Korean, Traditional Chinese, and Simplified Chinese

What are ultrafine particles? Does the Clean Air Agency monitor for ultrafine particles?
Ultrafine particles refer to extremely small particles that are less than 0.1 micron in diameter—700 times thinner than the width of a human hair. Unlike particles that range in size from to 2.5 and 10 microns (known as PM2.5 and PM10), there are no health-based standards for ultrafine particles. Current studies are assessing if there are negative health impacts of ultrafine particles beyond those known for PM2.5. The Clean Air Agency partners with researchers like the University of Washington to monitor ultrafine particles at different locations in our jurisdiction.

Why is PM2.5 a concern?
In our region, PM2.5 (particles less than 2.5 µm in diameter, also known as fine particle pollution) causes most of the known health problems from air pollution, such as breathing troubles, heart and lung disease, strokes, and premature death. These particles can come from many sources, like cars, trucks, and other modes of transportation, as well as from industrial processes. In residential and rural areas, wood smoke is a major contributor. 

In industrial areas, we see a different pattern. Vehicles are a major contributor, as is wood smoke, along with industrial, and natural or background pollutants. 

Can you place a monitoring station in my neighborhood? 
The monitoring stations we operate in our four counties are built and operated according to air monitoring regulations determined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). They each have a specific monitoring objective, such as representing a neighborhood or regional scale, or to represent areas with the highest near-road air pollution, wood smoke, or industrial emissions. The stations have various high-quality instruments to measure different pollutants. They are also very expensive due to the cost of the highly-sensitive instruments. 

Air sensors, on the other hand, are lower-cost, portable devices. These sensors are available to anyone and typically cost a few hundred to a few thousand dollars – a fraction of the cost of our regulatory air monitors. The air sensors are most reliable at estimating fine particulate pollution. We have a network of air sensors in our four-county region which displays local concentrations. We also have a Lending Library program for people who want to borrow a sensor to help answer an air quality question in their neighborhood.

Is the Clean Air Agency involved in planning and zoning activities in the four counties?
The Agency is not involved in direct planning and zoning; most planning occurs through your local town, city or county.  However, we are involved with the regional planning committee – the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC). We participate in PSRC’s transportation policy board to provide air quality input. For specific planning and zoning concerns, please contact your local jurisdiction. 

Aren’t electric vehicles just as bad as gas vehicles depending on the source of electricity, and their batteries?  
Electric vehicles (EVs) are much more energy efficient than gas vehicles. Most of the energy in a gas vehicle is lost as heat; very little is lost in an EV. That means even with dirtier sources of electricity, you need about three times less energy overall to run an electric car. 

Studies show even in areas with coal-fired power, electric vehicles are the cleaner option.  Here in Washington State, most of our electricity comes from cleaner hydroelectric power and an increasing supply of renewable resources. So plugging your EV into the Washington power grid generates much less pollution overall, and much less upstream pollution than it would in other parts of the country that rely heavily on fossil fuels. As laws like the Clean Energy Transition Act are implemented, less of Washington’s power will come from non-renewable sources, making EVs even cleaner. 

An EV does require more energy to manufacture (mostly due to the battery) than a gas-fueled vehicle. In places with a cleaner grid, like ours in Washington State, the emissions from the additional energy for battery production are offset after about six months of normal driving.  

The minerals used to build EV batteries require a significant expansion of mining and production. However, there is a massive research and development effort to develop batteries that are cheaper, last longer, use more common minerals, and are easier to recycle. For example, batteries have already been developed that use significantly less cobalt. And, because of the value of these minerals, the incentive to reuse and recycle batteries is very high. 

Can our electricity grids support the increasing number of EVs and electric heating alternatives?
With the shift to cleaner technologies like electric vehicles and electric heating, the demand for electricity is rising. However, our electricity grid is currently able to accommodate this gradual increase Most EV charging occurs overnight when the rest of electricity demand drops significantly. The grid has the capacity to accommodate an increasing number of EVs for at least the next 10 years.  

Programmable thermostats that allow electric heating systems like heat pumps to turn off during the day, when many people are away working, and then turn on in the evening when residents return provide similar demand-shifting benefits. Using the available overnight capacity is actually a benefit for many utilities as it evens out their demand, so it is not considered a problem in the short-term.  

As the number of EVs and other electric appliances continues increasing, the capacity and resiliency of the grid will need to increase – and most utilities are planning for this right now. In 2019, the Washington State Legislature passed the Clean Energy Transformation Act, which requires the state’s electric utilities to fully transition to clean, renewable resources by 2045. This will help in integrating carbon-free resources to modernize the grid. 

Are outdoor/recreational fires allowed? What can you burn in outdoor fires?
Subject to air quality or fire-safety burning restrictions, recreational fires are generally allowed on private property or designated public locations and include cooking fires, campfires, and bonfires; as well as fires lit in free-standing devices. Generally, recreational fires must be less than 3 feet in diameter and less than 2 feet high, must be 50 feet from any structure, can only use seasoned wood – no trash, and the smoke must not unreasonably impact anyone else. Always check with your local fire department to find out what rules apply in your area before starting any outdoor fire or visit  

Here are some general categories:

  • Charcoal, natural gas, or propane for food cooking - allowed, but must not unreasonably impact others 
  • Seasoned wood, manufactured logs – allowed unless an air quality burn ban, or fire-safety burn ban has been issued. If no burn ban is in place, burning these materials must not unreasonably impact others.
  • Burn barrels – illegal to use at all times
  • Trash – illegal to burn at all times
  • Land clearing debris – Illegal to burn at all times
  • Branches, weeds, leaves, etc. – burning piles must be less than 4 feet wide, 4 feet long, and 3 feet high; 50 feet from any structures; smoke cannot impact neighbors; and check with fire department for any local restrictions. 

Why does the Agency not have a leaf blower or lawn mower program?
Pollution from gasoline-powered leaf blowers and lawn mowers are very localized and do not significantly impact the air quality of the neighborhood or the region (less than 1%). The Agency focuses its resources on regulating sources that impact the larger region, like the emissions from businesses and industries, wood burning, and transportation pollution. To reduce individual exposure from gasoline-powered leaf blowers and lawn mowers, try to limit your usage or upgrade to battery-powered equipment when possible.

What should I do when odor or other pollutants (such as dust) impact me at my home or place of business?
When you experience an air quality impact that interferes with your enjoyment of life and/or property, please register your complaint with us as soon as possible. If it is an odor issue and our inspector can respond while it is in progress, they must be able to detect an odor in person, that is distinct, definite, and unpleasant, and be able to trace the odor back to its source. They will also need a signed statement from the complainant to support any enforcement action that may be taken. 

Is pollution from BBQ/grilling regulated by the Clean Air Agency?
Barbecuing and grilling causes smoke, and the amount depends on the fuel used and the technique. However, these emissions are usually small scale and localized and do not impact the overall air quality in the neighborhood, although they can impact an adjacent neighbor. You can limit your exposure to the smoke caused by BBQ by limiting your time around it, monitoring the temperature of your grill, and using propane or natural gas instead of charcoal. 

What can be done about idling vehicles? 
Idling your vehicle—running the engine when you’re not driving it—reduces your vehicle’s fuel economy, costs you money, and creates unnecessary air pollution. In modern vehicles, driving the vehicle helps the engine reach its ideal operating temperature faster than idling, so no warmup is needed. And idling for more than 15 seconds uses more fuel and produces more pollution than stopping and restarting. 

The Agency implements programs to reduce emissions from vehicles and supports anti-idling campaigns in collaboration with schools. There are many measures which can be taken at individual level to avoid idling. If the line at a drive-through is long, consider turning off your car while you wait. Caregivers waiting to pick up schoolchildren will also want to minimize idling because vehicle emissions are more concentrated near the ground, closer to where children are breathing. The idling of commercial trucks can also lead to local emissions; companies operating these trucks can save money by encouraging their drivers to not idle when the truck is parked.

Don’t parks and trees help the air?
Trees and vegetation can act as a physical barrier to help reduce exposure to air pollution (for example near a busy roadway). However, the improvement is typically limited, and due to their porous nature, can be less effective than a solid wall. Trees help reduce carbon dioxide by removing and storing it – thus helping address climate change. There are various co-benefits of parks and trees other than cleaning the air, which include reducing urban temperatures in the summer, preventing erosion, and providing habitat for wildlife. 

How is the Clean Air Agency involved in regulating emissions from airplanes and trains?
We do not regulate emissions from airplanes and trains as federal law preempts us from directly regulating these sources. However, as our communities are impacted by pollution from these sources, we are working to reduce emissions in several ways:

  • We partner with airports and airlines to provide grants to replace diesel-fueled ground-support equipment, such as baggage-handling tractors and airplane tugs, with electric-powered equipment. 
  • We obtain grants to encourage replacing diesel-fueled locomotives with electric-powered locomotives and replacing diesel-fueled yard trucks in railyards with electric yard trucks.
  • We support the Washington State Department of Ecology’s rulemaking for the statewide clean fuel standard to help reduce the carbon intensity of fuels.

Is leaded fuel used in propeller airplanes hazardous?
In 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lowered the blood lead reference value for children and highlighted that “lead exposure at all levels is harmful to children.” Most exposures for children are not from the air but instead come from leaded paint in homes. Most of the lead emissions in the air in our region are estimated to be from propeller planes (about 80%). 

To explore emissions from propellor planes, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Washington State Department of Ecology monitored lead levels near runways with high propeller plane traffic (Auburn and Paine Fields). The results were well within the EPA health-based standards for lead.  We are currently sampling near the King County Airport for lead and other metals and will have results in 2023.  Based on prior sampling, we expect these levels to also be within the health-based standards.