Healthy Environment

The environments we live in, both built and natural, shape our health in many ways, often without us even noticing. Our environments are comprised of physical, chemical and biological factors, including the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, and the homes and the communities we live in. For example, what insects live nearby, what food you have access to, and what your home was built with all play a role in your health and well-being. There are many organizations working to create healthy environments in Washington County. Some of that work includes providing clean drinking water and sanitation, managing waste, monitoring and tracking air pollution, and monitoring and controlling mosquito populations.

Air Quality

PM2.5 refers to dangerous particulate air pollution that is 2.5 micrometers in diameter or smaller. These particles are tiny enough to enter deep into the lungs or even the bloodstream. Particulate pollution is caused by several things, including burning wood. Source: National Environment Public Health Tracking Network.

Nearly one-third of households in Washington County burn wood for heat. Older wood stoves can cause problems, as they are inefficient and produce high amounts of pollution. Exposure to wood smoke is a health hazard associated with many health issues, including upper respiratory system inflammation and asthma, increased risk of cardiovascular disease, heart attacks and increased risk of certain cancers. Although anyone can have health effects from wood smoke, those most affected are infants and children, older adults, and people with existing heart and lung conditions.

Washington County has worked toward reducing wood smoke pollution with local policies that prohibit the burning of yard debris throughout the year, and prohibit the use of wood stoves and fireplaces on poor air quality days during winter months (November to March). Additionally, in partnership with private industry and city partners, Washington County created a wood stove exchange program that provides rebate and full-cost grants to exchange old and polluting wood stoves for new, cleaner and more efficient heat devices. Since the start of the program in 2016, Washington County has exchanged over 300 old and polluting wood stoves for new and cleaner heating devices. The goal is to exchange 700 old wood stoves by 2021.

Note: Particulate pollution here includes both PM2.5 and PM10. Source: Washington County Public Health.

Climate Change and Health

Climate change is a major public health concern impacting the health and well-being of people living in the tri-county metro area (Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties). The 2018 National Climate Assessment found that the Pacific Northwest has warmed about two degrees Fahrenheit since 1900, resulting in warmer winters, declining snow pack, and more instances of high heat, drought, and wildfires.  The impacts of climate change are not contained within county borders and addressing and preventing the impacts to people in our community requires a collaborative and comprehensive approach involving health care, public health, community-based organizations, civic groups, private industry, and local and state elected officials.

The first step in addressing climate change impacts to the tri-county metro area is understanding the ways health is impacted. To do this, Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington county public health departments partnered to create a report that provides baseline data on 12 health conditions within five environmental areas that climate change is known to affect. The full report is available here.

Climate change events likely to impact health in the tri-county region include heat waves, extreme weather events, conditions that promote the spread of disease-causing insect and bacteria populations, and poor air quality. This story highlights impacts of air quality and extreme heat. 

Air Quality

Changes in air quality are strongly linked to climate change and events related to hotter, drier conditions as our region experiences more smoke from wildfires. Air quality is expected to worsen as a result of the increase in smoke and other harmful pollutants like smog (ground-level ozone).  Groups who face higher risk of health impacts from poor air quality include: outdoor workers, children, immigrants and communities that are culturally or linguistically isolated and may not have access to emergency communications, and those living near high traffic areas or industrial facilities.

What is happening in the region

Between 2016 and 2018 the region has seen an increase in the count of people visiting emergency departments (ED) with asthma-like symptoms. Data from ED visits showed an increase in the rate of asthma-like symptoms in each county.

Extreme Heat

One of the most direct health impacts of climate change is increased exposure to higher temperatures. In 2016, the Portland region saw 13 days over 90°F, increasing to 22 days in 2017 and 29 days in 2018. Extreme heat events can cause loss of internal temperature regulation and conditions including heat cramps, heat exhaustion, heat stress, heat stroke, and death. Some people in our community face a higher risk from extreme heat including children, older adults, outdoor workers, people experience houselessness, and people with chronic medical conditions. 

What is happening in the region

Regionwide visit counts were higher in 2017 and 2018 compared to 2016. These higher counts coincided with a greater number of high heat days over 90°F. The regional rate per 100,000 population changed from 13.5 in 2016 to 18.1 in 2018, suggesting an increase over time.

Materials Management

Global demand for materials and products, from building supplies to food and water, is increasing rapidly, bringing significant impacts to Washington County community members, businesses and the environment. Oregon law recognizes the limits of our environment’s ability to absorb the impacts of increasing consumption while meeting human needs and maintaining healthy, vibrant and prosperous communities. To guide future action in managing our waste, the State of Oregon has adopted a new vision for 2050:

“Oregonians in 2050 produce and use materials responsibly, conserving resources, protecting the environment, and living well.”

-2050 Vision for Materials Management in Oregon

This vision challenges Washington County to take into account the full impacts of materials throughout their life cycle and invites us to focus our work so that it will have the greatest impact. 

Food is one example of that focus. When food is wasted, so too are the water, land, energy, time and financial resources required to get food to our homes and onto our family’s dinner table. We all have the power to manage our materials in a way that supports human health and well-being and builds a resilient environment.

Wasted Food at Home

In 2016, the amount of edible and inedible food scraps from approximately 110,000 Washington County households was measured. The results showed that about 17,000 tons (34 million pounds) of edible food was wasted — disposed of and not eaten.

Food insecurity refers to an inability to afford or access a varied, high-quality diet. People with very low food security may go hungry.

Data Source: Feeding America

While nearly 11 percent of Washington County residents face food insecurity, the amount of edible food wasted was the equivalent of 850,000 meals and could fill over 450 semi-trucks (or 23 Olympic-sized swimming pools). The majority of the environmental impact caused by growing, transporting and processing this food has already happened by the time we buy it. Preventing the waste in the first place has the greatest environmental benefit.

By making small shifts in how we shop, prepare and store food, we can waste less, save money and conserve the valuable resources associated with food production. Take the Eat Smart, Waste Less challenge and get free tools and tips to help reduce wasted food.

The food wasted in one year in Washington County could fill 450 semi-trucks.

Wasted Food and Food Scraps at Work

In 2016, businesses in Washington County wasted more than 20,000 tons (40 million pounds) of edible food and food scraps. Approximately one-third of the business sector’s waste stream is food and food scraps. Wasted food is wasted opportunity. 

Washington County’s Green Business Leaders program is working with nearly 300 Washington County businesses to recover and prevent as much of this wasted food as possible through edible food donation, food scrap composting and improved efficiencies that cut waste throughout a business' operations. When recovered, food scraps become clean energy and nutrient-rich soil amendment. When food waste is prevented, so too are the negative impacts from production, transport and disposal.

Overall Waste Generation in Washington County

Making, transporting, selling and disposing of the materials consumed in Oregon contributes between 35 and 48 percent of Oregon’s consumption-related greenhouse gas emissions.

While much effort has been focused on increasing the amount we recycle, the majority of the negative environmental impact from most products occurs in the production, transport and storage of those products. This means that while recovering what we can from our waste for useful purposes helps offset a small portion of negative environmental impacts, the biggest benefit comes from avoiding the need to manufacture items in the first place.

Consumption of materials is a stress to the environment that is generally estimated by how much is thrown away. The more waste that is generated, the more stress posed on the environment through the energy, resources and upstream impacts that are involved in making the products. Each year, garbage and recycling collection companies in Washington County collect between 400,000 and 500,000 tons of waste from businesses and households in Washington County. The total quantity of waste generated in Washington County — in total and per capita — is increasing.

Much of this waste can be avoided by making small shifts in how we manage our things. We can all make a difference by focusing on buying quality products that last longer and can be repaired, refusing junk mail, avoiding single-use items and wasting less edible food. Visit Washington County Recycles to learn more about what you can do to help our community waste less. 

About the Data

Days with PM2.5 Pollution for Oregon is from the CDC's National Environment Public Health Tracking Network. The data is based on a combination of measured and modeled estimates, which give a fuller picture of pollution levels than monitors only. 

Wood Stove Exchange data is from the Washington County Wood Stove Exchange Program, 2016-2019. The amount of corresponding particulate pollution prevented was calculated by Washington County based on the EPA Emissions Calculator.  

Food Insecurity Rate data is from Feeding America: Map the Meal Gap. Information about their methodology is available here.

Food Waste data is from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s statewide 2016-17 waste composition study.

Waste Collection data is from the Washington County Solid Waste and Recycling program CY 2014-2017.

Additional Resources

LiveStats: SNAP (Food Stamps) in Washington County

Washington County: Garbage and Recycling Services

Eat Smart, Waste Less Challenge

Cover photo from flickr user born1945.