There are many gases that affect air quality. Carbon Monoxide (CO) is a colorless, invisible gas and is the result of the incomplete combustion of carbon in fuel. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that 56% of atmospheric CO comes from “on-road” motor vehicle exhaust. Other “non-road” engines and vehicles (construction equipment, boats) donate 22% to CO emissions nationwide.
Even low levels of CO can affect air quality and cause individuals with heart disease and cause chest pain. High levels can have an impact on healthy people and can result in vision problems, reduced ability to learn and work, reduced manual dexterity, and difficulty when performing complex tasks. Extremely high levels of CO can result in death. And, as if that is not bad enough, CO is one of the constituents of smog, which can also cause respiratory problems.
What Exactly is Bad About Ozone?
Over the past 20 years or so, we’ve been hearing a lot about the thinning of the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere. This upper atmospheric ozone layer commonly referred to as “good ozone” limits the amount of harmful ultraviolet radiation reaching the earth. The world community responded to the thinning of the ozone layer phenomenon by eliminating the production of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). Besides the upper atmospheric ozone layer, there is also ground level ozone. So, exactly what is it and how does it affect us?
Ground level or “bad ozone” is not usually emitted into the air but results when nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) chemically react in the presence of heat and sunlight. The EPA states that some of the major sources of “bad ozone” are motor vehicle exhaust, industrial emissions, gasoline vapors, and chemical solvents. NOx, VOCs, and the resulting ground level ozone can be transported by the wind from urban areas, spreading over large areas and affecting entire regions.
Ground level ozone is often referred to as a summertime pollutant. During the summer months, when sunlight and hot weather are abundant, ground level ozone concentrations can rise to unhealthy levels damaging plants and the ecosystem in general. Even small levels of ground level ozone can cause a variety of health problems and prolonged exposure may cause chronic health problems.
You can check your local ozone levels by visiting the EPA AIRNOW website. This website contains general information about air pollution plus current air quality conditions, as well as forecasted air quality data. The data is color-coded into six categories, each representing an Air Quality Index (AQI) level of health concern.
Particulate Matter: Is the Air a Little Hazy Today?
Have you ever wondered what makes the air appear hazy? The haze might be the effects of particulate matter, also known as particle pollution. These particles can include dust, dirt, soot, smoke, as well as particles that form on liquid droplets such as sulfates or nitrates. Some particulate matter is emitted into the atmosphere from a variety of ground sources including cars, trucks, buses, factories, construction sites, tilled fields, unpaved roads, stone crushing, and burning wood. Other particulate matter is formed indirectly from chemical reactions that occur in the atmosphere between the gases of combustion, sunlight, and water vapor. Particulate matter can remain suspended in the air for hundreds of miles and therefore can travel away far from the source. In addition, when particulate matter eventually settles to earth, it can make streams and lakes acidic and damage property, forests, and farm crops.
While the levels of particulate matter have dramatically decreased since the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970, there are still areas of the country that have particulate matter concentrations above the national standard. The EPA recognizes that particulate matter is affecting certain regions of the U.S. including some of our nation’s most treasured areas such as the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Acadia, and Shenandoah National Parks. As a result, the EPA is working with States, tribes, and local governments to control the emission of particulate matter from industrial sources. Additionally in 1999 the EPA issued “regional haze” visibility regulations that call for long-term strategies that will return visibility in our national parks to near natural conditions.
The EPA states that when particulate matter is inhaled, it can aggravate asthma and has been linked to difficult or painful breathing, coughing, chronic bronchitis, decreased lung function, and even premature death.
About the Air Quality Index
The following is courtesy of the EPA
Each day in more than a thousand locations across the country, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) measures and records the outdoor air concentrations of five major air pollutants regulated by the Clean Air Act. These five pollutants are ozone, particulates, carbon monoxide, nitrogenA Look at Air Quality dioxide, and sulfur dioxide. For each monitoring location, the EPA converts these raw measurements into an Air Quality Index (AQI) for each pollutant. The AQI ranges from 0 to 500 where a value of 100 generally corresponds to the national air quality standard for each measured pollutant. The highest AQI value for the individual pollutants is the AQI value for that day. For example, if on July 12 a certain area had AQI values of 90 for ozone and 88 for sulfur dioxide, the AQI value would be 90 for the pollutant ozone on that day.
In large cities (more than 350,000 people), state and local agencies are required to report the AQI to the public daily. When the AQI is above 100, agencies must also report which groups, such as children or people with asthma or heart disease, may be sensitive to the specific pollutant. If two or more pollutants have AQI values above 100 on a given day, agencies must report all the groups that are sensitive to those pollutants. Many smaller communities also report the AQI as a public health service.
EPA’s AIRNOW web site (www.epa.gov/airnow) contains general information about air pollution plus real-time and forecast air quality data. The real-time and forecasted data are color-coded into six categories, each representing an AQI level of health concern. Each color category and the associated health concerns are defined as follows:
Good — With an AQI value between 0 and 50, air quality is considered satisfactory, and air pollution poses little or no risk.
Yellow — Moderate. With an AQI value between 51 and 100, air quality is acceptable. However, unusually sensitive people may experience negative health effects.
Orange — Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups. When AQI values are between 101 and 150, sensitive people (those with lung or heart disease, asthmatics, children, and the elderly) may experience negative heath effects.
Red — Unhealthy. When AQI values are between 151 and 200, everyone may begin to experience negative health effects. Sensitive individuals may experience more serious health effects.
Purple — Very Unhealthy. When AQI values are between 201 and 300, everyone may experience more serious health effects; a “health alert” is generated.
Maroon — Hazardous. When AQI values are over 300, the entire population is more likely to be affected, creating “health warnings” of emergency conditions.
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