Daily Gazette: Lung association gives low marks to region's air quality


April 28, 2010

CAPITAL REGION — Schenectady County is the only county in the Capital Region to receive a passing air quality grade for ozone in the American Lung Association's new State of the Air 2010 report.

The report, scheduled to be released today, also states that Saratoga County had the highest ozone level of any county in the region that has ozone monitors, with an average of 20 high ozone days between 2006-08.

During this same three-year period, Schenectady County had an average of four high ozone days and Albany County had an average of 10 high ozone days.

Schenectady County received a C grade for ozone in this year's report as well as in the 2009 report, said Michael Seilback, vice president for public policy and communications with the American Lung Association in New York. But Seilback said it was difficult to pinpoint why one county gets more high ozone days than its neighbor.

"Air pollution is linked to local sources such as vehicle emissions, wood burning, power plant emissions and local industry," he said.

"Our region also receives pollution from coal-fired power plants in the Midwest," Seilback said. "But either way, local weather patterns, topography and geography also determine where air pollution lands."

The American Lung Association releases its State of the Air report each year based on the air quality readings.

The report assigns A through F grades to counties that have at least one air quality monitoring station. Some counties in the region, like Fulton, Schoharie and Montgomery counties, were not included in the report. The report card is based on the Environmental Protection Agency's index for ozone and particle pollution.

The readings from the monitors are color-coded, with an orange reading representing an ozone level "unhealthy for sensitive groups," a red reading "unhealthy" and a purple reading "very unhealthy."

Sensitive groups include people suffering from asthma, emphysema or chronic bronchitis.

The ozone readings for the Capital Region counties were orange readings, the least harmful on the list.

The counties with the highest ozone readings in the state were Suffolk, with 34 orange days, six red days and one purple day, and Westchester, with 28 orange and five red days, as averaged over the three-year period.

Nevertheless, the overall results of the State of the Air report in New York state shows an improvement from 2009.

"State of the Air 2010 is encouraging because we can see that the steps we've taken to reduce emissions from sources including power plants and diesel engines are improving air quality," said Scott Santarella, president and CEO of the American Lung Association in New York.

"At the same time, it's obvious that we need to do much more to clean our air," Santarella said in a written statement. "From North Fork to Niagara Falls, far too many New Yorkers are still breathing in failing air that puts their health at risk."

Seilback said Tuesday that the air quality trends in the Capital Region are heading in the right direction. For example, last year's report indicated that Saratoga County had 21 high ozone days, compared to 20 in this year's report.

Ozone, sometimes called smog, is the most widespread air pollutant.

"It is a gas formed most often when sunlight reacts with vapors emitted when motor vehicles, factories, power plants and other sources burn fuel," says the American Lung Association.

"Breathing in ozone irritates the respiratory tract and causes health problems like asthma attacks, coughing, wheezing, chest pain and even premature death," the report says.

The report says that more than 12 million New Yorkers, or 62 percent of the state's residents, live in counties where unhealthy air threatens their lives and health.