Ken-Ton Bee: Rating the air we breathe

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May 4, 2011
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How the grades are calculated: In the American Lung Association's analysis of ozone and short-term levels of particle pollution, it assigned increasing weights to the days when air pollution levels reached the higher ranges to calculate their grades. The ALA adds those together and calculates the weighted average, then assigns grades based on that weighted average. For year-round levels of particle pollution, the ALA uses annual averaged levels calculated by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The American Lung Association recently released its 2011 State of the Air, which provides ratings for air quality across the country.

The Lung Association’s report uses the most recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s data collected from 2007 through 2009 from official monitors — in New York the monitors are controlled by the state Department of Environmental Conservation — for ozone and particle pollution.

Ozone vs. particle pollution

According to the DEC, ozone, or 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.

Breathing in ozone irritates the respiratory tract and causes health problems such as asthma attacks, coughing, wheezing, chest pain and even premature death.

Five groups of people are especially vulnerable to the effects of breathing ozone: children and teens, anyone 65 years of age or older, people who work or exercise outdoors, those with existing lung diseases, and “responders” who are otherwise healthy but for some reason react more strongly to ozone.

The department also explained that particle pollution, called fine particulate matter or PM 2.5, is a deadly cocktail of ash, soot, diesel exhaust, chemicals, metals and aerosols that can spike dangerously for hours to weeks on end.


The body’s natural defenses, coughing and sneezing, fail to keep these microscopic particles from burrowing deep within the lungs, triggering serious problems such as asthma and heart attacks, strokes, lung cancer and even early death.

Anyone living in an area with a high level of particle pollution is at risk. Individuals at the greatest risk from particle pollution exposure include those with lung disease, diabetics and women over 50.

Air grading system

The Lung Association’s report, which grades counties based on the color-coded Air Quality Index developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to help alert the public to daily unhealthy air conditions, states that air quality in Western New York needs improving.

Counties are graded for ozone, year-round particle pollution and short-term particle pollution levels. The report also uses EPA calculations for year-round particle levels.

The Lung Association identified the number of days that each county with at least one air quality monitor experienced air quality designated as orange (unhealthy for sensitive groups), red (unhealthy), or purple (very unhealthy) to determine the grades.

Erie County was among the 16 (out of 34) counties in New York state that had Department of Conservation air quality monitor results that received failing grades. Western New York’s monitors are located in Amherst, Buffalo, and Tonawanda. The Lackawanna station’s operation was suspended at the end of 2010 due to budget and personnel restraints.

The county received an F — the worse grade — for ozone pollution. It experienced 18 orange days, six fewer than reported in 2010. It received a D for short-term particle pollution, the same grade as last year.

Buffalo was ranked among the list of most polluted cities for ozone and was tied for 76th out of 228 total metro areas nationwide. The region also was ranked among the list of most polluted cities for short-term particle pollution and tied for 60th out of 230 total metro areas. Finally, the region was ranked 89th cleanest on the list of cities ranked for annual particle pollution out of 218 total metro areas.

“This report shows that air pollution isn’t just a downstate problem. It’s a problem throughout the region and state that affects you whether you live in Brighton or in Buffalo,” said Sandra Kessler, interim president and CEO of the American Lung Association in New York. “These results show that the Clean Air Act and other clean air laws are working. To ensure all New Yorkers breathe healthy air, it is our job to make sure that Congress doesn’t weaken the Clean Air Act and that state government doesn’t roll back important clean air regulations.”

Is the air here really that bad?

The DEC doesn’t seem to think so.

Megan Gollwitzer, a representative of the DEC’s Division of Public Affairs and Education, notes that the Lung Association uses its own methodology to rate the air quality instead of using the health-based National Ambient Air Quality Standards.

“Using federally recognized protocols, Erie County is below the National Ambient Air Quality Standards limits in all criteria pollutants measured,” she wrote in an email to The Bee.

Based on what the pollutants are and where they come from (as noted in Ozone vs. particle pollution), any major metropolitan area faces similar issues relative to ozone and fine particulate matter.

“In general, the more concentrated the population and associated vehicle traffic with industry the more likely that emissions will be greater. Ozone being a transport issue will most likely be the same in Orchard Park as it is in Tonawanda on any given day,” she wrote, adding that the state as well as the federal government have many strategies in play that over time will reduce sulfur in fuel, nitrogen dioxide and hydrocarbon emissions.

“Some strategies affect power plants as well as home heating oil, others affect mobile sources. Mobile sources contribute approximately half of the emissions,” Gollwitzer wrote.

Pollutants used in the Lung Association’s report rating were ozone and PM-2.5. Ozone is monitored only at the Amherst station; PM-2.5 is monitored at Buffalo and also Lackawanna until the end of 2010.

“For eight-hour ozone, the three-year average of the fourth maximum for 2008 through 2010 was observed at .072 parts per million by volume, below the NAAQS of 0.075 ppm,” explained the representative. “For PM 2.5, the annual standard is 15 micrograms per cubic meter of air (ug/m3), and in a 24-hour period is 35 ug/m3 . The three-year averages for Buffalo and Lackawanna were observed at 10.1 (annual), 16.5 (24 hr); 9.8 (annual), and 26.9 (24 hr), respectively.”

How to get cleaner air

The DEC claims it’s taking steps in Erie County to reduce the amount of ozone and particle pollution.

“Besides Statewide strategies to reduce sulfur in fuels and volatility in gasoline, the DEC has negotiated significant reductions of Sulfur Dioxide, Nitrogen Oxide and particulates with the Huntley Power Plant located in Tonawanda. Continuing inspection and enforcement of all permitted industry ensures compliance with current regulations,” the representative wrote.

There are many ways residents can help clean the air and protect themselves.

Check the news for daily air quality levels and air pollution forecasts for your area. On days with elevated ozone or particle pollution, avoid exercising outdoors.

Help reduce pollution by driving less, reducing electricity use, and refraining from burning wood.

Contact lawmakers to voice their support for legislation that would make the air cleaner.

People can also support efforts to improve air quality by participating in the American Lung Association’s Fight for Air Walk in Rochester being held on Sunday, May 15.

“With our right to breathe healthy air being challenged in the halls of Congress and in Albany, we need New Yorkers’ help in safeguarding federal and state clean air laws,” said Michael Seilback, vice president of Public Policy and Communications for the American Lung Association. “Just as we need strong state and local regulations to protect us from pollutants that originate within our borders, we need a strong Clean Air Act to protect us from the pollution that makes its way here from old, dirty coal-fired power plants in the Midwest.”

For more information on air quality in New York visit The State of the Air report is available at