Atlanta was tied for seventh among U.S. metro areas for its number of unhealthy air days in 2010, according to a report released Tuesday....

Atlanta was tied for seventh among U.S. metro areas for its number of unhealthy air days in 2010, according to a report released Tuesday.

This year, Atlanta’s smog ranking may be even worse.

Metro Atlanta had 34 smog days as of August 21, second only to the notoriously smoggy Los Angeles area, says a report by Environment Georgia, an environmental advocacy group.

“Our city is already known across the nation for our ghastly commute,’’ said Jennette Gayer, policy advocate for Environment Georgia. “We don’t want to be known as one of the smoggiest cities as well.’’

She joined another advocacy group, Mothers & Others for Clean Air, and Emory public health researchers to discuss Atlanta’s air pollution and its link to medical problems at a media briefing Tuesday at Emory University.

The advocacy groups made their case as a regional roundtable of public officials gets ready to approve  transportation options for a 1 percent special sales tax referendum — a 10-year, $6 billion proposal set to come before metro Atlanta voters next year.

By reducing the number of vehicles on roadways, mass transit projects in metro Atlanta are expected to lower ozone-forming emissions and particle pollution, the advocacy groups say.

One option being considered is a rail line connecting Emory’s Clifton Corridor to the Lindbergh Center MARTA station. The Atlanta Regional Roundtable will hold a public hearing on that proposal and others at the Maloof Auditorium in Decatur on Wednesday.

Next month, the roundtable will settle on the list of projects to be put on the 2012 ballot.

The roundtable process and next year’s vote provide “an unprecedented opportunity’’ to improve and expand Atlanta’s public transit system, said Rebecca Watts Hull, director of the Mothers & Others group.

Atlanta’s smog load can damage the health of its citizens, especially children, she said.

Ground-level ozone, a main ingredient of smog, has harmful effects, especially on children, older adults and people with respiratory illnesses. Air pollution, including fine particulate matter, is linked to respiratory and heart diseases, cancer, premature death, and reduced lung function in children.

Children are vulnerable because their organ systems are not fully developed, they’re typically more active than adults and they breathe more air per pound of body weight, said Matthew Strickland, an assistant professor at Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health.

He pointed to research showing that high ozone levels in Atlanta are associated with an increase in children’s emergency room visits for asthma attacks.

The sales tax referendum is opposed by some individuals and groups, including the Marietta-based Georgia Tea Party.

“We are opposed to the TSPLOST in principle because we don’t believe that nine other counties and the city of Atlanta have the right to impose a tax increase on the citizens of Cobb County,” J.D. Van Brink, who chairs the group’s board, told the Marietta Daily Journal. “We believe that the law itself is fundamentally flawed and needs to be repealed.”

The proposed light rail line between the Arts Center MARTA station and the Cobb Galleria/Cumberland Mall area has drawn especially strong opposition.

At Tuesday’s media briefing, though, the health advocates  pointed to Atlanta’s air quality problems  under the current transportation set-up.

The metro Atlanta area has failed the EPA’s ground-level ozone standard since 1978 and its fine particulate matter standard since 2004.

At the briefing, Emory researcher Jeremy Sarnat described a study in which he is measuring pollutants inside commuters’ vehicles and documenting their health effects.

Sarnat recently told Georgia Health News, “Even though individuals spend a relatively little amount of time in their cars, concentrations of some pollutants can be quite high, and these subclinical changes can trigger a pathway toward an adverse health response down the line.’’

“Even the smallest changes in oxidative stress among the participants tell us something,” Sarnat said.

Here’s a link to Mike King’s GHN article in July on clean air transit options.

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Andy Miller

Andy Miller is editor and CEO of Georgia Health News

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