Washington County, which is nearly out of compliance with federal air-quality requirements, will offer aid for up to 700 households to help replace their old, polluting wood stoves.

Starting this summer, the county will use grants and other aid to begin a five-year effort to get the most dangerous stoves out of commission, says Matt Davis, the county health agency official in charge of the program.

The county is on the edge of not complying with federal air-quality limits for PM 2.5, microscopic particles that can be emitted from poorly burning wood stoves and are a threat to human health.

“We do not need to have everyone stop burning,” Davis said at a recent session of the Washington County Public Affairs Forum.

“What we need to target are those people who are relying on those old appliances, because they are producing a lot of emissions.”

Fireplaces and wood stoves made before 1988 generate most of the smaller particles coming from wood smoke. Pellet stoves and wood stoves made after 1988, when federal standards took effect, generate a small fraction of those pollutants.

PM 2.5 stands for particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns; a human hair is about 50 to 70 microns wide. Those can lodge deep into human lungs, and carry harmful chemicals and cancer-causing agents, Davis says.

“Our lungs are good in sorting out larger particles,” says Davis, who works in the county health and human services department.

“But when you get down to 2.5, that’s when our bodies fail us. We breathe those particles deep into our lungs, and they can pass into our bloodstream.”

In addition to the wood stove change-out program, Washington County is issuing public advisories on when it is safe to burn wood, providing public education on the use of seasoned wood for minimal pollution and maximum heat, and imposing restrictions on the burning of yard debris in areas outside city limits where haulers provide pickup service.

The problem isn’t just a concern in Washington County.

State and federal officials say that PM 2.5 readings at other metro-area air monitoring stations closely track readings in Hillsboro that prompted the new Washington County initiatives. Violations at any of the metro area’s air-monitoring stations can trigger federal restrictions on air pollutants from new or expanded industrial sources throughout the region, including Multnomah and Clackamas counties.

Officials in Clackamas County also are looking at whether to start a similar change-out program for old wood stoves, at the request of Commissioner Jim Bernard. However, county Chairman Jim Ludlow says he thinks the goal would be better accomplished through a 2009 state requirement for homeowners to remove older polluting wood stoves when they sell their homes. Noncompliance can result in a fine of at least $750, and also can delay completion of a home sale.

Lakeview in southcentral Oregon and Prineville in central Oregon also are close to violating federal air standards for PM 2.5. Klamath Falls and Oakridge are in violation.

In a 2014 telephone survey of more than 1,000 metro area residents conducted by Portland State University, 78 percent said they did not use wood for heating. About 4 percent relied on wood as their primary source and 18 percent as a secondary source.

Those who use wood stoves as their primary heat source account for about the same amount of wood smoke pollution as the much-larger number who use it as a secondary source, acccording to the DEQ.

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