Journal News: Hudson Valley air cleaner, but not healthier



Appeared in print April 28, 2010
By Greg Clary 

Everyone around here can breathe easier — air quality in the New York metropolitan area is getting better.

The American Lung Association's 11th annual report card for the nation's air, "State of the Air 2010," continues to hand out failing grades to the Lower Hudson Valley, but experts say things are not as bad as they've been.

"It's a good report for the New York City area," said Janice Nolen, a top policy official with the lung association. "We still have a long way to go, but we are seeing improvement."

New York City's data showed enough change for the better, Nolen said, that it dropped off the list of the nation's 25 most polluted cities for year-round particle pollution, a first since the group began analyzing state and federal data. Los Angeles continued its hold on the top spot.

Two factors are credited for the healthier air — cleaning up of coal-fired power plants and cleaning up of diesel fuels and engines.

Since the data include Environmental Protection Agency and states' statistics for 2006, 2007 and 2008, locals have more good news to look forward to, thanks to the 2008 shutdown of Lovett generating station in Stony Point.

Westchester, Putnam and Rockland residents continue to breathe air that fails the healthy test too many days a year. Westchester and Putnam counties have air monitors that provide that data; Rockland gets lumped in with the Lower Hudson Valley, which only saw Dutchess County rise out of the dunce-cap group.

"While most of the Hudson Valley is still receiving failing grades, it's trending upward," said Michael Seilback of the lung association's New York chapter. "At least not everything's gloomy."

For the past few years, all the counties surrounding New York City have pulled in scores that should have resulted in trips to the woodshed, to the point that some have wondered how local efforts could have any results when Midwestern power plants were continuing to belch toxic pollutants that ride a jet stream to the Northeast.

Seilback said the next few years should show the northern suburbs to be improving even more, thanks to Lovett closing. That plant routinely landed on the list of worst polluters in New York and the nation, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the EPA.

"We're expecting fewer days when the ozone levels are hitting highs, fewer times when we have to be careful going outside," Seilback said. "It's not often that you have a region with almost all failing grades and still feel hopeful."

The number of days with high levels of ozone — an extremely reactive gas molecule composed of three oxygen atoms that is the primary ingredient of smog — is a key factor in the report's grading system.

That's also the case with short-term particle pollution. The national air quality standard is set to allow 2 percent — roughly 21 days in three years — to exceed 35 micrograms per cubic meter.

To receive a failing grade, a county had to hit 27 such days in a three-year period.

Dr. Norman Edelman, the lung association's chief medical officer, said there's no mistaking what the unhealthy days do to those with compromised lungs or other medical problems such as heart disease.

Recent research shows that the effect on healthy people who exercise or work outside is greater than originally thought, Edelman said.

"If you're in a city with constant levels of air pollution, you're at increased risk of lung disease and heart disease," Edelman said. "It's like a sunburn inside your lung."

Children and people over the age of 65 are at special risk among those exposed to air pollution every day.

Port Chester resident Francess Cepeda knows the risks. She keeps an eye on her 9-year-old daughter, Marleyna George, knowing that a dirty-air day can trigger the child's asthma.

"On a bad day, she'll wake up and need her nebulizer," Cepeda said. "She has a harder time breathing and will feel uncomfortable most of the day."

Cepeda said she has seen an improvement in her daughter's condition, though it's not clear if cleaner air is the reason.

"I do check (the clean-air index) when I'm checking the weather," Cepeda said. "That way I know whether she's going to have a good day or a bad day."

Nolen said that in the 40th year of the Clean Air Act, the nation has cut 40 percent of air emissions, but there have been ups and downs. The 1990s, she said, showed little change after a couple decades of real improvement.

"You can't just assume that it's going to get better," she said. "You have to keep pushing. The air's not going to get better on its own. You have to have controls. We're very far away from air that is safe to breathe."