Citizen Science: Documenting the Scourge of Wood Smoke

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Nursing & Healthcare Leadership Assistant Professor Robin Evans-Agnew is helping Pierce County youth document their experience of wood smoke pollution and its impacts on their lives.

Ten Pierce County middle and high school students spent part of 2015 and 2016 documenting their neighborhoods with photos and sampling the air quality of their indoor environments as part of a citizen-science project to reveal the impacts of wood smoke and fine particle pollution on public health.

Their work is part of the Wood Smoke Photovoice Environmental Justice Project. Their findings were presented to the public during a Wood Smoke Photovoice Gallery Event on March 1st at the Grace Moore Library in Tacoma.



My neighbor across the street burns for several hours each day even during burn bans. I collected a lot of woodsmoke data in my house and it was probably from them. Most diseases in lungs come from wood smoke.

Image courtesy Dr. Robin Evans-Agnew.
The image above right was taken by a youth participating in the Wood Smoke Photovoice Environmental Justice Project. The title and text above left were written by the photographer to explain the image. Together, the image and the text make up a "phototext," one element in the photovoice methodology employed by Dr. Robin Evans-Agnew in his research.

This is the first citizen-science research project to investigate wood smoke pollution in homes. The event included a facilitated community discussion concerning wood smoke pollution and environmental justice. The project is made possible through a grant received by the UW Tacoma Nursing & Healthcare Leadership Program, funded by the University of Washington Royalty Research Fund. Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department also provided significant support to the project, including data, project conceptualization, and space for the youth to meet and work on the project.

Featuring the works of 10 middle and high school students from Tacoma, Lakewood, Fircrest, Spanaway, and Puyallup, the gallery event showcased the photos, stories, and air-sampling data youth collected in their homes during Pierce County’s 2015-2016 burn-ban season, when indoor and outdoor burning were restricted to prevent unhealthy levels of pollution.

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Wood smoke is emitted into the air from wood burning stoves, fireplaces, and outdoor bonfires. Fine particle pollution from sources such as wood smoke can have negative effects on human health, including respiratory and cardiac disease. A large area of Pierce County--including Tacoma, Fife, Milton, Lakewood, Puyallup, Spanaway, Frederickson and Steilacoom--has been designated as a smoke reduction zone, where special efforts are being made to reduce wood smoke, which accounts for more than half of fine particle pollution on an average winter day.

The Wood Smoke Photovoice Environmental Justice Project aims to reduce wood smoke and improve public health in Pierce County through community engagement. This stage of the project, starting with a small cohort, is designed to determine the feasibility of engaging and empowering youth to achieve wood smoke reduction goals. 10 youth from Lakewood, Fircrest, Tacoma, Spanaway, and Puyallup took photos around their neighborhoods that depict their perceptions of wood smoke pollution and performed indoor air-sampling tests during burn-bans. Air samples were tested at the UW Tacoma Center for Urban Waters laboratory. The youth met periodically between November and February to share their photos and data and to discuss wood smoke pollution, health effects, local management efforts, and social justice issues.

Their results are surprising: while only one youth reported using a woodstove, all the youth found evidence of the tracer elements of wood smoke particulate pollution, sometimes in high concentrations, in every indoor environment tested. The voices of the youth, coupled with the testing results, will inform future efforts to expand both the Photovoice project and to advocate for expanded state resources to address the sources of wood smoke pollution.

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Written by: 
John Burkhardt / February 24, 2016
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or