The 2010 smog season remains up in the air

By Guest Columnist KEVIN GREEN, executive director of the Clean Air Campaign

Since breathing is one of the great pleasures in life, we thought we would take a minute to assess how this year’s smog season has gone, how it compares to years prior and where we may be heading.

To start with the obvious, this summer has been HOT – one of the warmest Georgia summers on record. And the heat affects more than just our thermostats. Ground-level ozone is formed when pollutants mix with heat and sunlight, which is why we have a “smog season” in Georgia, the five-month period from May 1- Sept 30. As cooler temperatures and shorter days move onto the horizon, so too does the end of when we are most likely to see days of increased air pollution.

What’s the verdict on the 2010 smog season?

As of September 23, we have experienced 25 days when the air was considered unhealthy for some – or all – citizens. Nine of these violations were recorded so far this month. In fact, there have been more September air quality violations this year than we’ve had since September 1999, when metro Atlanta logged 14 September violations.

But the air quality standards have been ratcheted down since 1999, so it takes less pollution in the air to trigger a violation now than it did 10 years ago. Although smog season officially ends at the end of this month, that doesn’t mean we can’t experience bad air in October. If the weather remains hot and dry, that is a very real possibility.

The 25 violations in metro Atlanta so far this year is more than the number we saw during the entire 2009 smog season (16), but fewer than the 31 violations during the 2008 smog season and the 36 in 2007. This year also saw the first Code Red violation since July 2008.

Other parts of the state also experienced violations of air quality standards, including Augusta, Athens, Columbus, Macon and Rome (13 total days of violations across all regions).

With the record high temperatures this summer, why didn’t we see more smog violations?

Luck had something to do with it. Generally, sustained high temperatures in the 90’s is great news for power companies and air conditioning retailers, but not so great for air pollution levels.

But the summer of 2010 was characterized by high moisture from the Gulf, which inhibits ground-level ozone formation. Typically, Georgia’s summer weather is influenced by high pressure from the Atlantic, which causes our heavy, dry air and stagnant winds.

For those Weather Channel buffs, this type of weather is typical of the El Nino to La Nina transitions. When this happens in a heat wave, we experience those multiple-day periods of high pollution. Fortunately, we haven’t experienced many multiple-day smog episodes in 2010.

It wasn’t all luck, however, as ground-level ozone levels in Georgia and much of the United States have improved over the last several decades, despite large increases in population. A lot of the success can be attributed to regulatory controls on power plants, industry, cleaner automobiles and fuels, along with a host of other measures. But we have a lot more work to do.

What about the more stringent smog standards on the horizon?

Earlier this year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that it will revise clean air standards for ground-level ozone, the primary component of smog. Only a minimum and maximum range has been communicated by the EPA so far, and the exact level within that range won’t be announced until the end of October.

But the new smog standard will be much stricter, which means that metro Atlanta – and many other areas in Georgia – will log more bad air days than they have under the current standard.

For example, as of August 13 of this year, 15 days in metro Atlanta had exceeded the current standard for ozone. Under the range for the new standard, we would have seen anywhere from 28 to 48 total days of violations during the same period. Same air, different standard.

This action by EPA is the result of thousands of studies into the health effects of ground-level ozone on humans, where EPA has determined that public health is adversely affected at even lower levels than previously understood.

Why should we care?

It’s simple: we don’t want to breathe unhealthy air. Ozone is the most widespread form of air pollution at ground level, and once it is inhaled, it can irritate your respiratory system, resulting in wheezing and coughing and can even trigger asthma attacks. In more serious cases, it can inflame and damage the cells lining your lungs, aggravate chronic lung diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and cause permanent lung damage in children and adults through repeated short-term exposure.

Children and active adults are both in a higher risk bracket for health problems caused by unhealthy ozone levels because they naturally spend more time doing activities outdoors during the summer months, the time the ozone is at its peak. Other people more susceptible to the dangers of ozone include people living near heavy traffic or close to industrial sections and people with asthma or other kinds of respiratory problems.

The good news is that we can make a difference. Traffic and air quality are inextricably linked, as more than half of smog-forming emissions in this region is coming from the tailpipes of cars and trucks. The Texas Transportation Institute, in its 2009 report, ranked Atlanta’s traffic as 3rd worst in the nation.

While longer term solutions will involve billions in increased transportation and transit investment leveraged by better land use, we can’t lose sight of the range of cost-effective strategies that can yield immediate benefits. Teleworking, carpooling, riding transit and other alternatives to driving alone not only reduce pollution, but make a measurable difference in the region’s mobility.

In sum, breathing is not optional, and there are real costs associated with air pollution. Just as regulations and technology have helped to give us cleaner air to breathe, so too can more voluntary actions. The time to act is now.

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