This was written by Samantha Allen for Fosters.com
PORTSMOUTH — The American Lung Association released its findings of local air pollution in a “State of the Air 2012” report and gave Rockingham County a grade of D, up from a failing grade last year.
The report also revealed no counties failed this year and air quality has improved in many parts of the state.
American Lung Association, or ALA, Vice President for Health Promotion and Public Policy Ed Miller said, however, the improvement in air quality pertains to ozone, or smog, levels while particle pollution is still a major concern.
Ozone is the most widespread air pollutant, according to the ALA, but those levels are closely monitored by the state. Particle pollution, Miller explained, comes from cars, trucks and even more detrimentally, from wood burning, and local monitoring options of that are slim.
The ALA refers to this kind of pollution as “a deadly cocktail” of ash, soot, diesel exhaust, and metals, to name a few.
Miller added even more troubling is the state’s current rethinking of acceptable levels of pollution — while some municipalities may be passing in the area, the EPA is due to release new standards, Miller said.
“Levels of pollution we used to think were not harmful and were safe we now find are no longer safe,” he said. “There’s been more and more data showing ozone at the lower levels is more harmful. This is about creating awareness and understanding New Hampshire needs to improve its air quality significantly. There are certainly things we need to go do and continue to do in New Hampshire to address New Hampshire-based problems.”
Miller added Strafford County was not included in his organization’s report because the state does not operate air quality monitors out of even the more urban locations in the county, such as in the cities of Dover and Rochester.
The Air Resources Division in the state Department of Environmental Services said they are aware of the ongoing pollutant problem, common in the New England area as well as coastal regions.
Transportation and Energy Programs Manager Rebecca Ohler stressed the state department works diligently to monitor all areas. She said a unit located in Portsmouth — one of 15 in the state — serves the purpose of gauging levels in Strafford County as well as those in Rockingham, adding because the two counties are close in proximity, ozone levels typically stay the same.
But Miller pointed out there is still no monitoring of particle pollution near Dover or Rochester, which he said is circumstantial and can rise immediately in an area based on various conditions.
He said someone burning a fire in their backyard or using a woodstove in the winter can raise the pollution levels and noted using wood for heat is a common practice in New Hampshire.
“If you start looking at particle pollution, it can vary from town to town, let alone county to county,” he said.
Mike Fitzgerald, who works in the Air Resources Division as the administrator of the Technical Services Bureau, says there are plans in the works to bring more particle pollution monitors to the area, though they typically cost $30,000 a unit. Fitzgerald said tight federal funding has made the implementation of local monitors difficult but the department recently received a grant from the EPA that will allow for greater concentration on the issue.
“We’ve actually outfitted a mobile vehicle with one of these monitors,” he said. “We’re doing some screening and hopefully we’ll determine areas where we need to put more focused attention.”
He added a report from the mobile-vehicle monitor was sent to the EPA last week and the Department of Environmental Services is expecting to receive results from it in the next few months.
Miller said the State of Air report has been an ongoing study for 13 years, and works to enforce standards set forth by the Clean Air Act to clean up major air pollution sources. According to the EPA.gov website, the act is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year and will “prevent over 230,000 early deaths in 2020.”
Ohler said the Seacoast area has a long-standing history of poor air quality, noting dominant prevailing winds can sweep debris from the shoreline throughout the coast. While she said she had not seen the ALA’s State of the Air report, she agreed there are many local contributing factors that would account for a low score.
“One of the prime sources of air pollution in the state is from motor vehicles ¿ The other big source is power generation,” she said, adding that New Hampshire shares electricity with surrounding states and often generates more power than is needed or used.
Portsmouth Environmental Planner Peter Britz said the city is aware of the pollution problem and while they are not pleased with the low grade from the ALA, the community is working with their residents to ensure better environmental habits.
Britz said locals are encouraged to make use of public transportation by riding the COAST regional bus service and University of New Hampshire students take the Wildcat Transit. He said biking is also a new, popular means for transportation which also promotes cleaner air.
“Regional transportation can take some traffic off of the roads. We’re encouraging people to look at optional ways to get around,” he said. “(Air pollution) is certainly a concern and we’ll be working to understand it better.”
Britz added the city of Portsmouth routinely updates its website to notify residents when “low air quality” conditions are in effect.
“The big thing, I think, is to let people know and to try to get the word out,” he said.
Miller said while the grade D sounds very ominous, he wished to look at the positives. He said for a comparison, York County in Maine was also ranked at a D level, but Rockingham County had fewer “low air quality days” — one of the many factors analyzed by the ALA to score counties in their national report.
“I don’t want to imply that it’s not bad. It’s going in the right direction and it is bad. For the people who live there, it’s bad, ” he said. “But, it is getting better. It shows nationwide, the air quality is improving and Clean Air Act is working.”
He said every person deserves the right to breathe clean air and stressed the importance of New Hampshire setting up more particle pollution monitors would be a step forward.
“We get complaints from people about wood smoke and there’s no way of knowing how bad it is because there’s no monitor there,” he said.
Miller also said lawmakers need to heed the EPA’s warning, and find ways to find universal healthy standards of air quality so communities are safe.
“In practical terms for people with lung disease and heart disease, when you have a standard that is not safe enough, you do not get warnings on unhealthy air days when you should,” he said. “There are more unhealthy days than you are led to believe and you end up with a false sense of security because you think the air is healthier than it is.”