Monday, May 2, 2011

Air Time: It's Air Quality Awareness Week

By Seth Preston, Communications Manager, Air Quality Program

It’s national Air Quality Awareness Week (May 2-6), and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is offering a handy, day-by-day breakdown of some common air quality issues. Today’s offerings are on ozone and fine particles.

Fine particles

This also is Wildfire Awareness Week, which is fitting because the smoke from wildfires can be a major source of unhealthy fine particles.

Fine particles in smoke are so small they can easily get into your lungs. Once there, they can cause or worsen heart and breathing problems like asthma, and even lead to death. Children, people with asthma and respiratory illnesses, and adults older than 65 are most at risk.

For the past two years, Ecology’s Air Quality Program and the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) have teamed up to swap new compost bins for burn barrels. It’s illegal to use burn barrels in Washington, which are a common cause of wildfires.

Unfortunately, DNR and Ecology weren’t able to obtain any grant money to continue the program this year.

This news release details the dangers of wildfire smoke, how you can use alternatives to burning yard waste and how you can protect yourself against breathing harmful wildfire smoke.


There are two kinds of ozone. “Good” ozone forms naturally about 10 to 30 miles above the Earth’s surface. It helps protect life on Earth from the sun’s harmful rays.

But ozone at ground level is considered “bad.” It is the main ingredient of smog, and can cause health problems.

Ground-level ozone is a gas created by a chemical reaction between nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the presence of sunlight. Vehicle and industrial emissions, gasoline vapors, chemical solvents, and natural sources emit NOx and VOCs that help form ground-level ozone. Many urban areas tend to have high levels of ozone. But high ozone levels can also be found in rural areas, because wind carries ozone and ozone-forming pollutants hundreds of miles away from their sources.

EPA has announced plans to lower the ozone standard to better protect human health and the environment. But the decision has been delayed, so we’re still waiting to see how that might affect communities in Washington.

Unhealthy ozone levels can affect people with lung disease, children, older adults, and people who are active. Breathing ozone can:
  • Trigger airway irritation, coughing and pain when taking a deep breath.
  • Cause wheezing and breathing difficulties during exercise or outdoor activities.
  • Inflame lung tissue.
  • Aggravate asthma.
  • Increase susceptibility to respiratory illnesses like pneumonia and bronchitis.
  • Permanently scar lung tissue after repeated exposures.

Here are some of the actions you can take to reduce ozone where you live:
  • Drive less. Combine errands or use public transportation.
  • Postpone travel until cooler evening hours, if possible.
  • Don’t use lawnmowers or other small engines that emit air pollutants.
  • Observe bans on outdoor burning because of high fire danger and health protection.
  • Don’t idle your engine. Turn it off while your vehicle is parked or waiting in line.
  • Wait for cooler morning or evening hours to refuel your vehicle.
  • Don’t paint or use aerosol sprays until temperatures cool off.

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