By Justin Reedy
With metro Atlanta facing some of the worst smog levels in the country, local businesses and government entities are taking steps to reduce air pollution when possible.
Atlanta's air quality is the eighth-worst in the nation among metropolitan areas, according to a study by the American Red Cross. But the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority announced recently that the metro area's air quality has improved over the last three years.
Despite the differing opinions on Atlanta's smog problem, many private and public entities are still doing what they can to cut down on air pollution since the metro area is in "non-attainment" status, or doesn't measure up to Clean Air Act standards.
At Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, for instance, during smog season company vehicles are refueled in the evening hours, when gasoline fumes will have a much smaller impact on air quality, according to track spokeswoman Angela Clare. The use of outdoor equipment that gives off tailpipe emissions is also curbed during daylight hours in smog season, Clare added, and company buildings have their thermostats set to 78 degrees to save energy.
"As in past years, we're happy to do our part to make Georgia a healthier place to live," Ed Clark, president of AMS, said in a statement. "Hopefully our example will encourage other businesses to initiate other programs (to reduce smog). If every business in metro Atlanta participated, together we could make a significant impact on our community's air quality."
In Clayton County, the air quality campaign is getting a boost from area school buses. The county Board of Education and its transportation department took advantage of a state grant to have about a fourth of its bus fleet fitted with devices to reduce tailpipe emissions.
The $75,000 grant from the state Environmental Protection Division paid for about 60 diesel oxidation catalysts, which are emission control devices that replace the muffler on a bus. The devices help reduce particulate matter coming from a particular engine by 20 to 40 percent, hydrocarbons by 50 percent and carbon monoxide by 40 percent.
"We think it's a win-win situation," said Michael Jennings, the school system's transportation director. "We're the first ones in the state to put the devices on school buses. We're not doing it for the P.R., we're doing it for the children who might have had problems with the diesel fumes."
The school system's transportation department is also in the process of phasing in low-emission vehicles in its support fleet of passenger cars and trucks, Jennings said.
"We're trying to show the EPD that we're doing our part for air quality here in the metro area," Jennings said.
With passenger 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."
The aim of most carpool, vanpool and other vehicle-reducing strategies is to reduce smog in the city's air by cutting back on one of the sources. 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.
Smog 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."