Schenectady Daily Gazette: Health group cites pollution across region

Region's air quality not up to snuff

DailyGazettelogo

April 27, 2011
By Justin Mason

CAPITAL REGION — Capital Region residents can breathe a little easier these days, but that doesn’t mean the air they’re inhaling is clean. 

Most area counties with air quality monitors reported improvements, according to a study released by the American Lung Association this week. Those improvements, however, still reflect an air quality that can cause health problems for people in at-risk groups.

“This report illustrates that air pollution isn’t just a downstate problem,” said Sandra Kessler, interim president and CEO of the American Lung Association in New York. “Whether you live in Rensselaer or Saratoga or anywhere in between, air pollution affects you.”

Schenectady County’s four high-ozone days were the fewest in the Capital Region. Likewise, the county received the highest grade for air quality among the four area counties listed in the report.

Saratoga County reduced the amount of high ozone days by one, but still received a failing grade this year. Air quality monitors recorded 19 days of high ozone levels or nearly double any other Capital Region county.

Rensselaer County continues to receive a failing grade for its air quality. The county’s high ozone days increased by one for a total of 11, according to the 2011 report.

Albany County improved from a failing grade, yet still had nine high ozone days. The county recorded four days of high particulate pollution, a low enough statistic to garner a passing grade.

The study also gave Albany County a passing grade for annual particle pollution. The other three counties in the report did not submit sufficient data.

Statewide, more than 9 million New Yorkers, or nearly half of the population, reside in counties where the air is considered unhealthy. Of the 34 counties monitored, 16 were given failing grades, an improvement over the 19 receiving failing grades in the 2010 report.

“These failing grades are a cause for concern,” said Michael Seilback, vice president for public policy and communications with the American Lung Association in New York. “We need cleaner air and we need it across the state.”

And the pollution could get worse if provisions of the Clean Air Act are dismantled by Congress, Seilback warned. Several Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives are discussing legislation that would delay the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s implementation of air pollution standards for power plants, industrial boilers and cement plants.

“Our message to Congress is simple: Leave the Clean Air Act alone and let the EPA do its job,” he said.

The report relies on data compiled by the Environmental Protection Agency between 2007 and 2009. Its authors acknowledged that some of the slight increases or decreases in high ozone levels may be attributed to weather: A heat wave could cause an increase in the number of high ozone days recorded.

Also known as smog, ozone is a gas often formed 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 can lead to conditions including asthma.

Particle pollution is a potentially lethal mix of ash, soot, diesel exhaust, chemicals, metals and aerosols that can spike dangerously for several hours or for weeks on end. Coughing and sneezing often fails to expunge these microscopic particles, which can collect deep within the lungs and trigger serious diseases, such as lung cancer.

The report also shows an estimated increase in certain disease categories in some areas of the Capital Region. Those estimates were based on the Centers for Disease Control’s National Health Interview Survey from 2009.

The report estimates Saratoga County’s cases of adult asthma increased from 14,856 in the 2010 study to 16,938 this year, representing a jump of 14 percent. Saratoga County had 3,834 estimated cases of emphysema, representing an increase of 1,000, or 35 percent, over the previous year’s figure.

Albany County’s estimated cases of adult asthma jumped from 20,772 last year to 23,427 this year, representing a 12 percent jump. Emphysema estimates rose from 4,046 to 5,178, marking an increase of 25 percent.

“The bottom line is that air pollution makes us sick,” said Dr. Irwin Berlin, the American Lung Association in New York’s board chairman.