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MailTribune.com
  • Smoky skies were common without the wildfires

  • Editor's note: Two of our readers were thinking alike and came up with the following questions on air quality:
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  • Editor's note: Two of our readers were thinking alike and came up with the following questions on air quality:
    I'm just curious. For us old timers, we remember the days back in the 1950s and '60s with the wigwam burners that operated 24/7, along with the smudge pots. I remember times when the air was really bad in Medford. How did the air quality back then compare with what it is now with all this smoke?
    — Mark C., Medford
    I came to this area in August 1975, and, at that time, there were about three wigwam burners still in use then. They disappeared within about two or three years, I think. Someone told me that at their height, there were about 30 of them in the area and that the valley often looked like it does now with all those fires pumping smoke into the area. Can you Since You Asked people shed some light on the subject of smoke?
    — Tom C., Eagle Point
    As our readers might imagine, the subject of smoke has been a hot one lately at Since You Asked headquarters. We decided to combine Mark's and Tom's questions, which are very similar to a lot of questions we've received about the smoke.
    In short, was the air pollution in the good old bad days as bad as the smoke from our current fires?
    We ran into a bit of a problem trying to get good, hard scientific data, largely because, in the old days, air quality monitors took different readings than they do today. Apparently, today's monitors are very specific about what they are detecting.
    William Knight, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, told us it would be difficult to answer the questions for certain. He did, however, offer up a little extrapolation that he referred to as "junk science." In other words, he tried to decipher the readings from the old days and compare them to the readings of today.
    Bear with us on this line of inquiry.
    Knight said that he would basically not rely on the recent readings of particles of 2.5 microns or smaller, which are the nasty bits that burrow deep into the lungs, causing all manner of grief for those with respiratory or heart problems. For healthy people, these tiny specks, much smaller than the width of a human hair, can cause a heavy feeling in the lungs or a scratchy throat.
    Instead, Knight said he would look at particles that measure 10 microns or bigger, which are still tiny but don't get the same scientific respect as the 2.5 micron particles. Recently in Medford, we have seen spikes of 300 micrograms of 10 micron particles per cubic liter, Knight said.
    In the '70s, readings of 200 to 300 or more were fairly common throughout the year, based on an archaic measurement of air pollution known as Total Suspended Particles, or TSP. The TSP measurement was eventually abandoned by the federal Environmental Protection Agency because it measured only very large particles. Scientists discovered the 2.5 micron particles wreaked the most havoc on people.
    So, Tom and Mark, while Knight can't say with scientific certainty that the air was as bad in the '70s as during this smoky period, he says it appears it was at least close.
    According to Knight, "I think I can suggest that at times, the smoke we're seeing in Medford — over time — is very similar to the smoke that inundated the area ... during those years where the TSP value is around 300 or higher."
    Hope that clears things up for Tom and Mark, and all our other inquisitive readers who were asking themselves the same question.
    Send questions to "Since You Asked," Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by e-mail to youasked@mailtribune.com. We're sorry, but the volume of questions received prevents us from answering all of them.
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