Ecology finds agriculture, pollution cause bad air in Yakima

WASHINGTON STATE DEPARTMENT OF ECOLOGY NEWS RELEASE -- Monitoring air quality in Washington is nothing new to the Washington Department of Ecology. But when higher-than-usual nitrate levels were detected in the Yakima area Ecology wanted to take a closer look and understand what was causing the elevated levels. So the agency commissioned research by Washington State University and Central Washington University to find out why.

"We have a responsibility to safeguard the air quality in Washington," said Jeff Johnston, Ph.D., Ecology air quality science and engineering manager. "And although we can't see it, it affects our health with every breath we take."

Ecology monitors air pollutants throughout Washington to ensure federal health-based air quality standards are met. Air monitoring data show that the Yakima region could risk violating the federal 24-hour fine-particle pollution standard (PM2.5). When breathed deep into your lungs, fine-particle pollution can lodge and cause structural and chemical changes. These particles can also act as carriers for other toxic and cancer-causing materials.

"If we ever reach a point where we need to put a plan in place to reduce the air pollution in Yakima, we need a better understanding of the air quality issues," said Johnston.

Washington State University and Central Washington University conducted the study under the oversight of Ecology. Researchers found that the cause of high nitrate levels is ammonia from agricultural activities interacting with pollution from motor vehicles.

The researchers believe that because of the large amount of ammonia emissions in the region and the complex chemistry involved, reducing levels of nitrate will be difficult.

"We're interested in further research that will help us and our partners at Yakima Regional Clean Air Agency and the Yakama Nation best manage air quality in the region," said Johnston.