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Area tops pollution list

By Justin Reedy

Like much of metro Atlanta, the south side has some of the nation's worst smog, according to a report published by the American Lung Association.

The annual "State of the Air" report for 2003 saw Atlanta improve from sixth-worst to eighth-worst on the list of metro areas ranked by levels of ground-level ozone pollution, one of the main components of smog.

And though Douglas and Fayette counties dropped off of the top 25 most ozone polluted counties in the nation – going to 32nd and 48th, respectively – Henry County jumped onto the list as the 22nd worst for ground-level ozone levels.

In previous years, Henry County, which received a grade of F from the ALA in air quality, had not been graded or ranked due to insufficient monitoring data.

Clayton County was not ranked this year or in previous years because the state Environmental Protection Division has no ozone monitoring equipment in the county. But four neighboring counties, including Henry, Fulton, DeKalb and Rockdale, all made the Lung Association's list of the nation's 25 worst counties nationwide for ozone pollution. In addition, Clayton County is one of the 13 counties in metro Atlanta in "non-attainment" status under the federal Clean Air Act.

The association's fourth annual report on smog levels – released in time for the start of smog season at the beginning of May – asserts that air pollution continues to degrade across the country. More than 137 million Americans live in areas with unhealthy amounts of ground-level ozone pollution, according to the report. The studies include data from smog seasons during a three-year period, with 2003 rankings generated from data collected between 1999 and 2001.

"Four years into the (reports), where we've analyzed data since the mid-1990s, we can point to no significant ozone improvements other than a few lucky changes in the weather," said John Kirkwood, president and CEO of the Lung Association. "We can't depend on Mother Nature to protect Americans from disease and death caused by breathing human-made smog. It's time to fight for our right to breathe clean air and for America to solve the air pollution problems that Americans create."

Ozone exposure can

lead to problems

Smog is a mixture of air pollutants, including ground-level ozone and particulate matter, that can be harmful to the health of humans, animals and vegetation. In people, ozone can irritate and inflame the airways, causing shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing and chest pain.

Long-term exposure can reduce a person's breathing ability, as well as put people at risk of respiratory disease later in life. Those most at risk for problems associated with smog include children, the elderly, those who work or exercise outdoors and people with chronic lung disease or asthma.

"Particles and gases in the air can be an irritation in the lungs for anyone, but especially people with respiratory problems," said Vicky Ayers, a nurse and the adult community educator on lung health at Henry Medical Center. "During smog season, we encourage people to limit outdoor activities to the morning and evening hours, because smog is produced most during periods with lots of sunlight."

Smog is formed through a combination of particulate matter and ground-level ozone typically created by power plants, factories and car and truck emissions. Ozone is a highly reactive form of oxygen that is formed when nitrogen oxides, or NOx, reacts with volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. That reaction is fueled by sunlight and warm temperatures, so afternoon hours during the summer are usually the worst times for ozone levels. Smog season in Georgia lasts from May 1 to Sept. 30.

The Lung Association report tabulates the number of days each particular county has ozone levels that could endanger the health of its residents, using a color-coded system to indicate the ozone level. An "orange" day, for instance, is one with ozone levels that could be unhealthy for sensitive groups, while a "red" day is unhealthy for the general population and a "purple" day is very unhealthy for all people.

From 1999 to 2001, Henry County had 44 "orange" days, 11 "red" days and five "purple" days, according to the report.

Fighting smog on

the local level

With vehicle emissions contributing to metro Atlanta's air quality problems, clean air efforts often focus on reducing the number of cars on the city's roads.

For instance, the Georgia Clean Air Campaign, a not-for-profit organization that promotes air quality improvement, suggests minimizing travel, carpooling, and changing other personal and business habits to cut down on vehicle emissions.

Some businesses and government agencies start their own carpool or vanpool programs, such as Turner Broadcasting in downtown Atlanta. One of Turner's vanpools starts in Jackson and stops at the Home Depot store on Jonesboro Road in Henry County, while another route has stops in Ellenwood and Morrow in Clayton County, according to Melanie Francis, the company's vanpool coordinator.

"We fully subsidize the vanpool – we look at employees as doing their part (to reduce traffic congestion and improve air quality), because they're giving up their vehicles to ride in the pool," Francis said. "That program has been a pretty big success for us."

Though only about 90 of Turner's 6,000 employees in Atlanta take part in the vanpool program, Francis said, about 800 to 900 employees – or 13 to 15 percent of the company's workforce – participate in the vanpool, carpool or MARTA programs. And some people not employed by Turner take part in the vanpool, Francis said, though they are required to pay a small fee.

Vanpool, transit options

not always successful

Not all carpool or vanpool operations have been as successful in the Southern Crescent, though, such as one subsidized by the Georgia Building Authority's State Employees Commuter Assistance Program. Clayton County resident John Sampson used to drive in that pool, taking a vanload of state employees to downtown Atlanta from Jonesboro every morning. But some participants dropped out of the program, Sampson said, driving up the cost of the vanpool for the remaining passengers and leading to the route being discontinued.

"We got down to four people, and the price went up to $160 per person each month," Sampson said. "As soon as we get enough people to sign back up, we want to put it back on the road."

That vanpool, which departed from the intersection of Tara Boulevard and Ga. Highway 138 at about 6:45 a.m., included riders from Jonesboro, Riverdale and Stockbridge. Anyone interested in participating in the vanpool, which is also available to people who aren't state employees at a higher fee, can e-mail Sampson at jsampson@gta.ga.gov.

Though Clayton County has joined other metro area counties in starting a bus service for its residents, not everyone thinks that's the best way to get Atlanta residents to give up their cars to help improve air quality. A better solution would be a regional rail system serving more suburban areas and connecting to downtown Atlanta, according to Shane Moody, president of the Clayton County Chamber of Commerce.

"C-TRAN, (the county's transit system,) was a good first step for us, but it's time to take that to the next level," Moody said. "Part of public transportation is keeping people from getting in their cars at all, and on the south side that doesn't happen. You can't get to downtown Atlanta from the metro south region without getting in your car. Until we, the entire Atlanta region, bite the bullet and use funds to improve MARTA and public transportation as a whole, we're going to have this problem."