Ban field burning to protect Oregon

A confluence of recent science and newly analyzed data linking field burning to dangerous air pollution now presents lawmakers in Salem with the best opportunity in decades to put an end to this antiquated practice. SB 528, co-sponsored by Sen. Alan Bates and currently under consideration by the legislature, would cleanse the Willamette Valley of field burning smoke.

Research and clinical practice has established that fine particulate matter, when inhaled, can induce or exacerbate respiratory disease. Further, because such particles are too small to be effectively filtered by the lungs, fine particulate pollution can lead to vascular disease. For instance, a 2004 study of long-term exposure to fine particulate pollution, published in the journal Circulation, detailed increased risk of ischemic heart disease, dysrhythmia, heart failure, and cardiac arrest. Similarly, a 2006 study, in the Journal of the American Medical Association, reported that short-term exposure to increased levels of PM2.5 increased the risk of ischemic heart disease, heart failure, and cerebrovascular disease.

The State of Oregon admits the potential for harm. In a joint 2007 statement, the Departments of Agriculture, Environmental Quality and Health Services noted that short-term exposure can cause health problems for people with pre-existing respiratory disease and in "sensitive populations such as young children and the elderly." These agencies noted, as well, that effects of long-term exposure range from "reduced lung function to development of chronic bronchitis, and premature death."

It is in the interest of Oregonians to end field burning. For decades, residents and visitors to our state have experienced repeated smoke incursions each summer. Based on a recent analysis of air quality data, we estimate that in the last decade, field burning has led to increases in air pollution to levels of medical concern at least 920 times. This finding, among others, is contained in a recent report published at The results of our analyses are surprising and instructive, demonstrating that despite apparently good-faith efforts by state agencies to restrict burning to times of optimal meteorological conditions, smoke regularly inundates communities.

In fact, the state monitors air quality in only nine locations, and so perforce fails to capture many smoke incursions. Indeed, 64 Willamette Valley communities were located within a 5-mile radius of burns in 2008, yet only four of these — Albany, Corvallis, Lyons, and Sweet Home — have air quality monitoring stations. The remaining 60 communities include approximately 84,000 residents, many of whom have been repeatedly exposed to field burning intrusions that go unrecognized by the state's sparse monitoring network.

Dr. Damian Jorgensen, a physician and resident of Stayton, told a legislative committee last month that on burn days he sees "significantly more patients in clinic, some requiring hospitalization." He noted, as well, his special concern for "the damage that is occurring to the "¦ lungs of the children in my state, [in] the playgrounds in the town I call home."

Dr. Jorgensen, his patients, and his family, are among thousands of Oregon residents who have been adversely impacted by the state's field burning program. While the details of their experiences may not be strictly quantifiable, they provide powerful evidence of the direct impact that field burning has on the health and well-being of Oregonians.

Businesses, too, directly suffer. Hewlett-Packard recently endorsed an end to field burning due to the "unpredictable and sporadic nature of field burning" and the inability to control burns. Hewlett-Packard has been repeatedly hit with costly power disruptions caused by field burning smoke, disrupting its wafer fabrication processes. The resulting economic losses exceed $500,000 since 2003. Similar losses to other high-tech companies are certain.

Ample information is available to justify an immediate end to the state's field burning program. Without spending an additional dime of scarce public funds, lawmakers in Salem can improve public health and save lives. They should do it now, without further delay, by ending field burning.

Dan Galpern, an attorney, is co-director of the Western Environmental Law Center's Campaign to End Field Burning. Maya Leonard-Cahn, an environmental scientist, is coordinator of the campaign.

Share This Story