Eyes on ozone: Land-of-Sky launches annual ozone season

With today’s sunshine and warmer weather, ozone season — and local forecasts — begin in Western North Carolina. The pollutant forms when nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compounds are exposed to heat and sunlight, creating an unstable molecule composed of three hydrogen atoms, said Paul Muller, regional supervisor of the N.C. Division of Air Quality.

One of a several presenters at the Land-of-Sky Regional Council’s March 25 Ozone Season Kickoff, he said, “When the third oxygen molecule comes loose, it oxidizes whatever it comes in contact with. … And you better hope it’s not the lining of your lungs.”

Ozone is a known respiratory irritant and is linked to asthma, bronchitis, heart disease and other cardiopulmonary conditions. To help residents minimize those health risks, the state monitors ozone levels and makes daily forecasts available to the public, Muller explained.

More than half of North Carolina’s residents live in counties where ozone levels exceed the standard at times, according to a recent press release from the N.C. Department of Environmental and Natural Resources. And in WNC, conditions can vary between the valleys and ridge tops.

Buncombe County air quality averages 68 parts per billion — slightly less than the current 75 ppb federal standard, but “the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is reviewing the standard of attainment this year,” said Ashley Featherstone, engineering supervisor at the WNC Regional Air Quality Agency. The standard may be lowered, which would put WNC at risk of failing to meet federal guidelines, she explained.

Missing the mark would mean adding more controls on industrial emissions and seeking more “transportation conformity” — an increase in intergovernmental collaboration that ensures federally funded transportation projects adhere to the state’s air-quality implementation plan.

To put it another way, fewer cars on the road, not letting engines idle, using less electricity and improving public transportation options could all help.

Featherstone’s local air-quality update highlighted the primary causes of ozone in the Asheville area: emissions from cars, trucks and Progress Energy, which runs a power plant in Skyland. Despite pollution from these sources, Buncombe County had 301 days of “Good” air quality, 62 of “Moderate” air quality, and a mere two days that were “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups.”

That’s better than previous years, she indicated.

“We need to take proactive measures,” said Bill Eaker, environmental services manager for the Land-of-Sky. “With [population and urban] growth, there will be more cars and trucks on our roads and more buildings to heat and cool.”

Eaker ended the event by highlighting local initiatives to reduce emissions from motor vehicles, such as the growth in the popularity of alternative fuels in the area. He also praised the work of the individuals and businesses that helped Asheville be recognized by the Clean Cities Coalition, a U.S. Department of Energy program focused on reducing fuel consumption.

“As we continue to grow, we need to continue our programs to reduce emissions from the various sources,” said Eaker.

For the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ press release, click here.

For the local state air-quality forecasts and information, visit the N.C. Division of Air Quality website at visit http://avl.mx/rs and the WNC Regional Air Quality Agency website at wncairquality.org.

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