The air we breathe is an essential life need that connects us all. In Northwest Indiana, our air is cleaner than ever before, but we can not take it for granted. Some residents will remember the region prior to the advent of environmental regulation when air you could see, smell, and taste was a symbol of our economic success. Since the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970 and Clean Air Act Amendments in 1990, millions of dollars in engineering and pollution control technology spent on region industries, power plants, gas stations, and cars has had dramatic results. Yet for all the progress we have made in air quality, there is still work to be done. The work and effort that got us here must be maintained and science continually finds new challenges that must be met.
What is Air Pollution?
Different people and organizations talk about air pollution in different ways. Ambient air pollution is the presence of substances in the air in amounts that are detrimental to human health and the environment. Sometimes these substances are completely man made. Other times, they may be naturally occurring but the activities and choices of people increase the amount of them in the air, or our exposure to them. These typically fall into several categories that are regulated differently due to different sources as well as the different kinds of health effects and environmental impacts they might cause.
Criteria Air Pollutants were and still are the six most commonly found air pollutants contributing to health and environmental problems in the US. These six are particulate matter(PM), ground-level ozone(O3) , carbon monoxide (CO), sulfur oxides (SOx), nitrous oxides (NOx) and lead. Because of their widespread impact across the country, USEPA establishes health based standards for how much of each one can be in the air in any location and designates areas with too much as Non-Attainment, requiring states to develop State Implementation Plans to achieve “Attainment” with the standards.
Toxic Air Pollutants are those that have present severe health risks to people even if exposed to small amounts. These include toxic metals such as arsenic, mercury, cadmium, and lead, as well as cancer causing chemicals such as benzene and vinyl chloride.
Greenhouse Gases are substances that have been demonstrated to have a physically insulating effect in the atmosphere, reducing heat energy loss to space, similar to the way that glass or plastic walls allow light to enter, but prevent heat from escaping a greenhouse. We know from our own experience that different fabrics and building materials have different insulating capabilities. Many substances in both human and man-made have varying insulating properties including carbon dioxide, methane, and hydrofluorocarbons. Human economic activity has dramatically changed the relative abundance of some of these in the atmosphere over time contributing to what science agrees is an increasingly dramatic change in our planet’s climate. They have not historically been regulated and recent attempts to do so at the federal level continue to meet political and legal challenges.
Air Pollution and Your Health
On average, people breathe 3,000 gallons of air each day. Breathing polluted air can make your eyes and nose burn. It can irritate your throat and make breathing difficult. In fact, pollutants like tiny airborne particles and ground level ozone can trigger respiratory problems, especially for people with asthma. Today, nearly 30 million adults and children in the US have asthma. Asthma sufferers as well as those with other health problems such as heart disease can be severely affected by air pollution. The two criteria air pollutants that Northwest Indiana, and many other parts of the country, still struggle with are ozone and fine particulate matter. These are complicated by the fact that fine particulate matter in the air, combined with volatile organic compounds and other pollutants together in the presence of sunlight and stagnant air, can be cooked together to form ozone filled smog. Air Quality Action Days happen when weather conditions are predicted to create the perfect conditions for generating high levels of ozone and smog out of whatever ingredients are in the air. These are the days that those with asthma need to know about to protect themselves.
The Air Quality Index has been created to help people know how the weather may be impacting air quality on any day of the year where they are.
You can also check out similar information at Smogwatch at the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.
What is an Air Quality Action Day?
AIR QUALITY ACTION DAYS are issued when weather and air quality forecasts combine to make it likely that ozone or particulate matter in the air will cause levels to exceed air quality standards and create the unhealthy conditions of concern in the AQI. These are the days Indiana needs everyone to take some small step to reduce the air pollution we create. On Air Quality Action Days, if we all do a little, It All Adds Up to Cleaner Air!
To learn more about Air Quality and your health and sign up for Air Quality Action Day notifications go to Air NOW.