Atlanta and Columbus are doing better on air quality, but both have a long way to go.
The two Georgia cities are rated among the worst metro areas for air pollution in the United States, according to the American Lung Association’s annual report on air quality, State of the Air 2012.
The report, released last week, found Atlanta/Sandy Springs/Gainesville 25th-worst on ozone, and in a tie for 24th-worst on soot. Columbus/Auburn, Ala./Opelika, Ala. tied for 17th-worst on soot.
Still, June Deen, the state director of the American Lung Association, says that in Atlanta, “we’ve had fewer and fewer bad air days’’ in terms of ozone and particulate pollution. Columbus has also improved, she says.
“We still get F’s in a number of categories,’’ Deen says. “We’re not out of the woods by any stretch.’’
Two Georgia coastal cities — Savannah/Hinesville/Fort Stewart and Brunswick — were among the cleanest U.S. cities for ozone, probably due mostly to their location near the Atlantic Ocean.
Ozone and particle pollution, or soot, are the most widespread air pollutants — and among the most dangerous. Ground-level ozone, a main ingredient of smog, has harmful effects, especially on children, older adults and people with respiratory illnesses.
Air pollution, including particulate matter, is linked to respiratory and heart diseases, cancer, premature death, and reduced lung function in children.
Tuesday, May 1, is World Asthma Day, and it also launches the start of smog season. The Fulton County Department of Health and Wellness is holding an asthma awareness event Tuesday, bringing together community leaders, medical experts and clean air advocates.
Children’s asthma rates in Georgia are 12 percent, higher than the national average.
Air pollution triggers asthma attacks, notes Rebecca Watts Hull, executive director of Mothers & Others for Clean Air, an advocacy group. “Asthma is complex, and so addressing it really is going to require the type of partnerships that Fulton County is kicking off.’’
The Lung Association’s air pollution report tracks three years of data, and it found that nationally, air quality has improved.
Deen credits the Clean Air Act with curbing emissions from vehicles and coal-fired power plants.
Driving habits have changed, too, she says. The weak economy of the past few years is a factor, but Deen adds, “We started seeing air improvements before the recession.’’
Ozone is ‘‘like having a sunburn on your lungs,’’ Deen adds.
Controversy on regulations
Despite the health benefits attributed to the Clean Air Act, the rules it imposes are not always politically popular. The critics — mostly Republicans, but also some Democrats from states that produce coal and petroleum — say the rules destroy jobs.
“Over 14 million Americans are unable to find work and millions more have stopped trying,” Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power, said in a National Journal article after the House passed a bill to block the EPA from reining in pollution under the Clean Air Act.
“The breaking pace at which EPA is cranking out new regulations is creating obstacles to job creation in America and also to stimulating the economy,” Whitfield said.
Meanwhile, a report released in November estimated that the lives of up to 930 metro Atlanta residents could be saved each year if the EPA established stronger soot standards.
The study involved a collaboration of the American Lung Association; the Clean Air Task Force, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing atmospheric pollution; and Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm.
“Everyone is at risk when exposed to harmful levels of air pollution,” says John Graham, a senior scientist of the Clean Air Task Force, “Soot affects all people regardless of age, but can be particularly harmful to classes of people termed ‘susceptible.’ ”
“The simplest action people can take to minimize their exposure to harmful levels of [particulate matter] is to stay indoors when air quality is poor,” Graham says. “Also, people should avoid exercising during air pollution events.”
GHN intern Alvin Tran contributed to this article.