In April, the American Lung Association released its 10th annual State of the Air report (visit www.stateoftheair.org). The report indicates how unhealthy an area’s outdoor air is and grades counties nationwide on air pollutant levels, including ground-level ozone (smog) and fine particle pollution (soot).
Spokane County received a grade of “B” for ozone pollution and “C” for particle pollution. Our grades show improvement from years past and are the result of concentrated and targeted efforts to improve our air quality, specifically particle pollution. They also indicate, however, that the health of someone in your family may be at risk.
Those most vulnerable to air pollution include children and teens, older adults, people with chronic lung diseases such as asthma, people with cardiovascular diseases, and diabetics. But studies show that even healthy adults who work or exercise outdoors can experience negative health effects.
New research warns that women over 50 may be particularly threatened by air pollution. We also know people who breathe diesel or other engine exhaust on the job may face a greater risk of developing lung cancer or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Fine particle pollution poses the greatest public health risk. It is a toxic mix of soot, diesel exhaust, chemicals, metals and aerosols. Breathing in these microscopic particles can increase the risk of early death, heart attack, stroke and emergency room visits for those with asthma and cardiovascular disease.
According to the Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency (Spokane Clean Air), the two main sources of fine particle pollution are motor vehicles — especially diesel — and wood-burning stoves. Improved technologies have reduced emissions from these sources. Diesel engine retrofits have cleaned up many public diesel fleets, including school buses; meanwhile, new wood-burning stoves, when used properly, are much cleaner than older devices.
During summer, ground-level ozone (a key component of smog) is a priority health concern. When inhaled, ozone irritates the lungs, resulting in something like an internal sunburn. Ozone can cause wheezing, coughing and asthma attacks. Breathing ozone pollution can even shorten lives.
Ozone is created by a chemical reaction in the air. Two kinds of gases — nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) — combine in sunlight and heat to create ozone. The largest sources of VOCs are gas stations (during vehicle refueling) and motor vehicles.
Ozone levels peak when temperatures climb into the 90s. On these days, you can take extra precautions to limit the amount of pollutants released into the air during the day when ozone is forming. Driving less will have the biggest impact. Waiting until evening to fill up at the gas station and delaying the use of gasoline-powered yard equipment will also help. Switching to electric or manual yard equipment is another choice people can make. Spokane Clean Air has more information available at online at www.spokanecleanair.org.
You can protect yourself and your family by checking daily air-quality alerts and planning your outdoor activities appropriately. When pollution levels are high, avoid exercising near high-traffic areas, or exercise inside. Limit the amount of time your children play outdoors. The American Lung Association in Washington provides air-quality alerts via e-mail (sign up at www.alaw.org). In addition, Spokane Clean Air provides this information online and via an automated telephone recording (477-2571).
Each of us has the ability to assist in achieving and maintaining healthy air in our community. Simple steps can be taken each day to assure we all breathe easier.