In the DC metro area, there are many substances that could potentially be harmful to residents. A major concern is particulate matter, which is a mixture of solid and liquid particles suspended in air. Particulate matter can cause heart, lung, and respiratory disease if inhaled. The World Health Organization reports that no “safe” threshold for particulate matter has been identified – health effects have been observed even at very low concentrations. Worldwide, particulate matter affects the greatest number of people, and air quality measurements are typically reported using particulate matter concentrations. Carbon monoxide (CO) is a poisonous gas emitted in part by motor vehicles. Vehicle emissions contribute 60 percent of the total CO emissions in the US, and CO is also a byproduct of combustion from cooking or heating. Nitrogen dioxide is an air pollutant that causes respiratory infections and is a synthetic gas emitted during combustion, such as from vehicles or power plants. Sulfur dioxide, another pollutant that causes breathing difficulties, is emitted from coal-fired power plants, petroleum refineries, manufacture of sulfuric acid and smelting of ores containing sulfur. Lead in the atmosphere used to come from leaded gasoline combustion and in paint, but today is emitted by iron and steel production facilities and battery manufacturers. It can cause headaches and mental dysfunction.
Washington, DC has been challenged by ozone. Ground-level ozone is formed when nitrogen oxides and volatile organic carbons (emitted by vehicles and industry) react in the air with heat and sunlight. Inhaling ozone is harmful to lung tissue because of chemical reactions that take place in the tissue. Children, the elderly, and those suffering from lung diseases are especially vulnerable to ozone exposure. According to the EPA, the effects of breathing ozone can cause “increased medication use, emergency room visits and hospital admissions” in these at-risk groups.
The American Lung Association published the 2015 State of the Air Report, which uses data from the EPA Air Quality System database to comment on trends in air quality for different regions in the US. This report helps determine geographical areas that are most susceptible to high concentrations of different pollutants. Washington DC-Baltimore ranks in the top 25 most ground-level ozone-polluted cities in the country. The city was given an “F” for ground-level ozone pollution. The grading system was based on a weighted average of days where air quality was deemed unhealthy over a period of three years. A grade of “F” indicates “9 days or more over the standard.”
What can you do to minimize your exposure to ozone and other problem pollutants? EPA, NOAA, NPS, and other state and local agencies have developed the AirNow monitoring site (www.airnow.gov) that reports air quality across the country every day. To avoid hazardous effects of pollutants, avoid going outside on days where air quality is unhealthy. There is even an AirNow app in the iTunes store. Further, you can make your indoor environment less susceptible to pollution and particles by adopting the solutions discussed by Breathe Easy Home that aim to filter out pollutants from outside, and remove pollutants created indoors through human activities such as cooking or heating or house cleaning.
American Lung Association. “State of the Air 2015.” http://www.stateoftheair.org/2015/assets/ALA_State_of_the_Air_2015.pdf
Air Pollution Training Institute. “Introduction to Air Pollution Control.” Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards, EPA. http://www.apti-learn.net/LMS/register/EPALearning.aspx?t=0
EPA. “Overview of EPA’s Updates to the Air Quality Standards for Ground Level Ozone.” October 2015. http://www3.epa.gov/ozonepollution/pdfs/20151001overviewfs.pdf.
World Health Organization. “Fact Sheet: Ambient (outdoor) air quality and health.” WHO Media Centre. March 2014. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs313/en/.