Area ozone levels are among nation's highest

In light of the results of seven-county air monitoring study, local leaders are promoting education and awareness as first steps toward dealing with the region's high ozone levels.

More than 100 people attended a panel discussion Jan. 19 at Catawba College's Center for the Environment, where results of the Piedmont Carolina summer air monitoring study were shared.

Data were collected over eight weeks, May to July, from sample collectors placed in the backyards of volunteers' homes in Cabarrus, Davidson, Gaston, Iredell, Mecklenburg and Rowan counties and York (S.C.) County. The devices measured ozone and nitrogen oxide levels.

The center, through its Campaign for Clean Air, and Cindy DeForest Hauser, associate professor of chemistry at Davidson College, conducted the study.

The American Lung Association lists Rowan and Mecklenburg counties as having some of the worst ground-level ozone in the nation.

The association's 2011 State of the Air Report identified the Charlotte-Gastonia-Salisbury area as the 10th-worst metropolitan area for ozone pollution. Among counties, Rowan was 17th and Mecklenburg was 21st in the nation for ozone pollution in the counties monitored.

Rowan and Mecklenburg are the only N.C. counties where the N.C. Division of Air Quality is monitoring ozone, although Rowan's monitor sits close to the Cabarrus County line. Monitors in Mecklenburg and Rowan keep the official record of the Charlotte region's ozone pollution levels, which have impoved but are still above federal standards.

Ozone is the main component in smog. Formed in the air when nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons mix on hot, sunny days with little wind, it is unhealthy to breathe, experts say, and can damage trees and crops.

Nitrogen oxides are a primary pollutant, a component of vehicle or industrial emissions and a precursor to ozone formation.

The study showed average ozone levels were the same in all seven counties, while week-by-week comparisons showed variations. In general, ozone levels were similar or higher in counties without monitors. The levels were based on seven-day averages, which are different from the averages reported by EPA ozone monitors.

"A week-by-week analysis indicated that ozone levels in Cabarrus County actually appear to be higher than those in Rowan and about equal to those in Mecklenburg," said John Wear, executive director of the Center for the Environment.

"So when residents of Cabarrus County hear of ozone level warnings that are issued for Charlotte on the news, they need to take the same precautions."

Rowan, Mecklenburg and Davidson counties averaged about 10 parts per billion - based on seven-day averages - while the other four counties, including Cabarrus, were even higher, averaging 13 to 15 parts per billion, said Wear.

"One of the most important things local and regional leaders can do is educate residents about the health risks of air pollution and the importance of protecting themselves on ozone-alert days," said Wear.

After the study presentation, a panel of regional health, economic and governmental organizations discussed the ramifications of ozone pollution.

Serving on the panel were Dr. Chris Magryta of Salisbury Pediatrics; Robert Van Geons of RowanWORKS, the Salisbury-Rowan Economic Development Commission; Dakeita Vanderburg-Johnson of Healthy Cabarrus; and Rebecca Yarbrough of the Centralina Council of Governments. Other local and regional officials also attended.

"That shows that everybody realizes we're all in this together," said Shelia Armstrong, the center's air quality outreach coordinator. "I don't think we can say too many times how important it is to make sure the general public understands and knows about our air quality study."

Vanderburg-Johnson, chair of the Cabarrus Sustainability Council, said air quality is a major concern for Cabarrus officials, especially when they're trying to find a company to move into the former Philip Morris plant.

Vanderburg-Johnson's involvement with the sustainability council led her to get involved with Healthy Cabarrus, which is doing a community needs assessment and is using the air monitoring study's data for its own presentation in June, she said.

"Education is key for getting people in the region to change the statistic," said Vanderburg-Johnson said. "Once people know how this affects all aspects of life here in Cabarrus County, they start to think. Whether conserving water, recycling or not idling (car engines), educating the public is necessary to have an impact."

Health issues surrounding high ozone levels also caught her attention at the presentation.

"This is a serious issue that has long-reaching affects on our general population," said Vanderburg-Johnson. "And economic development can be adversely affected by statistics that link our region to poor air quality. And this can hinder business wishing to move to the area."

But everyone can help offset those statistics by simply not letting vehicles idle while visiting banks, pharmacies, fast food restaurants, school dropoff and pickup lines and the like. Other small steps, such as driving less, combining trips, carpooling, using mass transit and keeping vehicles maintained, also help.

Concord Councilman Al Brown attended the presentation and said the results will help the city spread awareness about the issue.

"In my view, the two biggest issues about air quality - along with water quality - are the health concerns for all citizens and the economic impact on our community," said Brown.

Brown said leaders and elected officials need to continually increase awareness about air quality and help people by highlighting health risks and how not addressing air quality issues hits everyone in the pocketbook.

"These kinds of efforts help to ensure that our standard of living is what we want it to be," said Brown. ". ... Hopefully, the people will get as emotionally charged about air and water as they are about some other things in the political process. Air and water are pretty vital to life, and I hope that we can all have a vested interest."

Leaders also can set examples by changing energy or fossil fuel-use policies and supporting traffic and land planning policies that reduce emissions.

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