Suffolk given ‘F’ for air quality

Published 8:25 pm Saturday, May 9, 2009

Rising pollution standards have dropped Suffolk’s grade in a test of air quality to a failing level.

The American Lung Association’s annual “State of the Air Report” gives Suffolk an “F” for ozone pollution, a grade based on data collected from 2005-2007.

Suffolk was one of thousands of communities nationwide that saw its grade fall from last year, after more stringent Environmental Protection Agency standards were put in place. The ALA had successfully sued the EPA to have the standards lowered.

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“We sued them, because they have a responsibility to protect human health, and yet they were setting standards that didn’t match up with current scientific evidence,” said David DeBiasi, director of advocacy for the ALA in Virginia.

During the three-year data period, Suffolk had 24 “orange days,” or days on which the ozone level was high enough to be considered unhealthy for sensitive groups. Suffolk had no days when the ozone level would have been considered unhealthy or very unhealthy.

Ozone (different from the healthy ozone layer in the atmosphere) is a molecule of three oxygen atoms made by a chemical reaction in the air. Volatile organic compounds, emitted by burning gasoline or oil and petroleum-based products like paint, and nitrogen oxides, emitted from the burning of coal, combine with sunlight and heat to create ozone.

Ground-level ozone irritates lungs, leaving them inflamed as if they had bad sunburn, DeBiasi said. Ozone causes wheezing, coughing and asthma attacks, and is especially dangerous to children under 18, people over 65, and people with asthma, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, cardiovascular disease and diabetes — the “sensitive groups” referenced above.

In March 2008, the EPA changed the acceptable standard for ozone pollution in a community to 75 parts per billion from 80 parts per billion. The ALA and other groups, however, argue that the standard should have been set even lower – as low as 65 or 60 parts per billion, a number that would have put more than half of the country into noncompliance.

“Science shows that lung damage can occur at 60 to 70,” DeBiasi said. “They (EPA) raised their standard so that they recognized that what we thought before was healthy air was not.”

“Communities that were safe last year are failing this year.”

Thanks to the new standards, 15 localities in Virginia earned grades of “F” for ozone pollution levels. Only 20 Virginia localities had air quality monitors in place for the study. Four localities earned Cs, and one earned a B. None earned As.

Last year, however, four localities earned As. Roanoke County went from an A last year to an F this year. Suffolk’s grade last year was a C. DeBiasi said that last year’s data has been updated to reflect the new standards, so that researchers could “compare apples to apples.” He did not know what Suffolk’s 2008 grade was under the old standard.

It is difficult to determine where ozone pollution in a community is coming from, DeBiasi said, because it often doesn’t come from the area or even the state. Because air knows no boundaries, sources of pollution could be thousands of miles away.

“It’s really hard to isolate what the reason would be,” DeBiasi said. “There are so many factors that affect ozone, including factors that are not in Virginia.”

Residents can help reduce ozone pollution by driving less, using less electricity, and advocating more stringent pollution controls for power plants, trucks, buses and oceangoing vessels.

“As a nation, we need to begin to choose a greener policy to make our choices so that we help our air quality,” DeBiasi said.