Wildfire smoke and my fireplace.

What does it feel like to be vulnerable to air pollution? Let me tell you my story…

One Friday a while back, I couldn’t seem to get a deep breath. I thought it was due to over-exerting myself (I’m six months pregnant so I get tired pretty easily). I didn’t realize that a steady stream of smoke from wildfires across the Pacific Northwest was slowly rolling into the Portland metro area, impacting the air quality all around me. It was a warm summer night, and I’m a typical Oregonian without air conditioning, so my husband and I slept with the screen door to our bedroom open that night, breathing the outside air as it got worse and worse. I slept very poorly, waking up wheezing and reaching for my rescue inhaler several times. Like so many Oregonians, I’ve had asthma for many years, and because of my pregnancy I’ve been taken off the steroid medications that control my asthma daily. Put simply, at this particular moment in my life, I am more vulnerable asthma triggers.

That Saturday I woke up exhausted and breathing like I was walking up a never-ending hill. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s Air Quality Index showed air readings of “unhealthy” in Beaverton, where I was spending the morning with friends, and “unhealthy for sensitive groups” in Portland where I woke up (sensitive groups are classified as those with existing health conditions, like asthma, as well as children and the elderly). Luckily, one of these friends is also my primary care doctor. Sitting across the table from me she looked concerned and said, “You’re working too hard to breathe, let me take your pulse.” It was very fast. I felt like I was using all my energy to breathe and getting to a point where I couldn’t use my rescue inhaler any more. The medicine in that inhaler is great in that it’s fast, but the effects don’t last long and it has some side effects — for me, it increases my heart rate and makes me shaky.

And then it was worse. The longer we sat there, the more I realized my baby wasn’t kicking.

As someone who lives with a little being growing inside me 24/7, my husband and I have developed an understanding of when she moves most: during and after meals, in the morning when I first wake up, and in the evenings before bed. So sitting there after a bagel and juice, I knew she should be moving — but she wasn’t. The silence and the stillness of not being able to sense my daughter’s movements was terrifying.

Under the instruction of my doctor, I drove home to rest. I had called my husband. We shut the entire house up so we could keep the unhealthy air out. My OBGYN told me to rest and start counting baby kicks. If they went below 10 an hour, if I began to feel dizzy, or if I couldn’t complete a sentence without stopping to breathe, I needed to go to the ER. Together in our quiet bedroom with the shades drawn, my husband and I spent the rest of the day feeling my belly and counting kicks.

My mother’s birthday party was that evening. I missed it. The night was filled only with sleeplessness, wheezing and the rescue inhaler — with regular calls to my doctor to check in. In the morning, the air got worse before it got better. I stayed indoors and counted kicks. She was moving — thankfully! — but not with the regular cadence or intensity I was used to. I wished I could see into my womb and make sure she was okay, but I was reassured by my doctor and the advice nurse that she was most likely fine.

Luckily that Monday, the air cleared. My breathing was a bit better, a new inhaler was starting to work, and my doctor determined I didn’t need to come in for a special ultrasound to check things out. I was exhausted from a weekend of working to breathe. But my baby started kicking right after I woke up and kept it up throughout the day. We were out of the woods.

While that weekend I worried about my own condition, I also thought about people who are exposed to similar conditions during wintertime air inversions. Yes, winter. For many communities in Oregon the winter skies can be full of pollution. Smoke from wintertime residential wood-burning (wood stoves and fireplaces) can be so bad that it exceeds federal health standards — exposing women like me from communities as diverse as the suburbs of Washington County to the hills of La Grande to the same risks.

Wood smoke contains gases and tiny particles known as PM2.5. These particles are so small that the body’s natural defense mechanisms can’t keep them from entering deep into the lungs where they can damage and change the structure of lung tissue, leading to serious respiratory problems. Wood smoke also contains some seriously nasty gases: carbon monoxide, which reduces the blood’s ability to supply oxygen to the body, stressing your heart; nitrogen oxides, which can lower a child’s resistance to lung infections; formaldehyde and benzene, which can cause cancer; and more.

With just one weekend of smoke and unhealthy air this summer, the Portland area got a glimpse into what it’s like to live in a world saturated with wood smoke — whose effects impact our very ability to breathe. In this one weekend, we had the opportunity to see just how vulnerable we are to a seemingly innocuous source of heat, warmth and “charm.”

Like most of us, I love the ambiance created by a fireplace or wood stove, but the EPA estimates that a single fireplace operating for an hour and burning 10 pounds of wood will generate 4,300 times more of certain carcinogens than 30 cigarettes. None of us want to send a kid — or a pregnant woman! — to the hospital with a severe asthma attack or an elderly person to their grave. That’s why Oregon Environmental Council supports a transition to cleaner burning wood stoves or other cleaner sources of heat, supporting programs that are also equitable (burning wood can be the cheapest heating option).

The weekend when I was exposed to smoke from forest fires, I vacillated between fear and gratitude: fear for my baby and gratitude that I have access to medical care. I felt grateful for modern medicine, steroid inhalers, a doctor who is also my friend that I can text whenever I have questions, a responsive OBGYN with an answering service on the weekends, a husband who took care of me. Not everyone has what I have — or can so easily identify the air pollution that is making it hard to breathe and live.

If you want to know more about smoke from wood stoves and fireplaces in your community and how you can “burn wise”, visit the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality or the Lane Regional Air Pollution Authority.

– Devon Downeysmith, Climate Communications & Outreach Manager


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2 Replies to "Wildfire smoke and my fireplace."

  • Barbara Peters
    September 16, 2015 (3:30 am)

    I spent the last four years working with air quality regulators in California to pass the first rule against wood burning fire pits. Many hearings in local jurisdictions followed by many Sacramento visits to speak to the legislature… it gave me perspective. We won. But we still haven’t won… we just moved to Oregon and it appears that wood burning is an institution here. Great article. Oregonians seem to care about how organic the food is, and pristine water quality. Seems like a good time to raise public awareness about the harmful effects of wood smoke.

  • Susan Goldsborough
    September 16, 2016 (8:15 pm)

    Wood smoke is a double edged sword, both a serious public health hazard and a major climate change forcer.