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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 05/ 6/2010

'Be air aware' this week

By Ann Posegate

D.C. receives failing grade in air quality report

* Sun & warmth team up: Full Forecast | NatCast | Tropical Trouble? *

How did you get to work today? Car? Bicycle? Your own two feet?

Sunday kicked off Air Quality Awareness Week, an annual observance by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and National Weather Service to encourage citizens to "be air aware." It couldn't come at a better time.

According to the American Lung Association's recently released State of the Air 2010 report, when it comes to air quality in the D.C. metro area, there's some bad news and some good news. Which would you like first?

Keep reading for more about the region's air quality status and what you can do, after the poll...

The good news is that, nationwide, as well as in the D.C. metro area, air quality slightly improved last year for ground-level ozone and particle pollution, two of the most dangerous pollutants to human health. In the report, the Baltimore-Washington-Northern Virginia region ranked 16th out of the 25 U.S. cities most polluted by ground-level ozone (down from 14th in 2009) and 18th out of the 25 U.S. cities most polluted by short-term particle pollution (also down from 14th in 2009).

The bad news is that D.C. is still one of the most polluted cities in the country: Despite our improvement, we received a big, fat, failing "F" ... again.

The main culprits, as you may have guessed, are power plants, industry and vehicles. According to the EPA, emissions from passenger cars and trucks are responsible for 27 percent of U.S. air pollution (Side rant: I can't tell you the number of cars I see while waiting for the bus each morning that are occupied by only one person ... Usually, after 15 to 20 in a row, I stop counting. That's a whole lot of cars for a small number of people. Meanwhile, I involuntarily breathe in the fumes until the bus arrives. I often wonder if I should be wearing a gas mask during my commute).

Under the Clean Air Act, EPA monitors six main air pollutants: ground-level ozone, particle pollution, carbon monoxide, sulfur oxides (SOx), nitrogen oxides (NOx) and lead. The diameter of particle pollution (aka "haze") can be more than 30 times smaller than that of a single human hair, and therefore very easily inhaled and lodged into our lungs.

Ground-level ozone (aka "smog," as opposed to stratospheric ozone that protects us from harmful ultraviolet rays) is formed most often during summer, when NOx react with volatile organic compounds and sunlight -- a toxic mix that can affect everyone, especially children, older adults and those with asthma, cardiovascular disease or weakened immune systems. From 2006 to 2008, D.C. had only four "Red" ozone alert days on the EPA's Air Quality Index, which was unusually low. We did, however, experience 47 "Orange" ozone alert days.

Besides sunlight, other weather conditions can exacerbate the effects of air pollution too. Wind can carry pollutants hundreds of miles -- take northern New England, for example, which gets most of its air pollution from westerly winds that carry industrial pollutants from the Midwest, or Iceland's volcanic ash traveling to Europe in recent weeks. Temperature inversions can also trap pollutants in a layer of cooler air near the Earth's surface, sometimes for days.

To protect your health, the most important thing you can do is stay tuned to the Air Quality Index forecast each day throughout the summer, and heed "Orange" and "Red" warnings, especially if you are in one of the groups sensitive to air pollution.

As an alternative, if you want to escape to the cleanest air in the world, all you have to do is put on your parka and head to the South Pole. Other options closer to home include: Bismark, North Dakota; Cheyenne, Wyoming; and Alexandria, Louisiana ... the cleanest cities in this year's State of the Air report.

More information:
CWG's D.C. Area Pollen, UV and Air Quality page
EPA's Local Air Quality Index forecast
DC air quality webcam
Quiz: How much do you know about air quality?
AirNow tips: What you can do

By Ann Posegate  | May 6, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Environment, Posegate  
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"I can't tell you the number of cars I see while waiting for the bus each morning that are occupied by only one person ... Usually, after 15 to 20 in a row, I stop counting. That's a whole lot of cars for a small number of people. Meanwhile, I involuntarily breathe in the fumes until the bus arrives. I often wonder if I should be wearing a gas mask during my commute"

Well aren't you a little goodie 2-shoes! I must be nice to have a bus that actually takes you from your home to your job and back again. For a majority of us that live in this region, public transit either doesn't serve the areas we need to go or it takes 3-5 times as long to get from home to work using public transit.

Please save your "rant" and preaching for another forum.

I will do none of the above recommended actions because they are not practical to my life, aside from the third, which I already do.

Posted by: Russtinator | May 6, 2010 11:29 AM | Report abuse

Air pollution affects me to some extent but tree pollen seems to be the big factor in my springtime allergies. [It's up again, in the three-figure range, which is still "High".]

Since I don't own a car, period, all my travel is either by walking or transit. The only exception, after a dance I sometimes get a lift from a neighbor; this is "carpooling".

My big issue involves transit service cutbacks, which force me to either stay home or take a taxi at higher rates.

On Monday the 10th I'll be filling out the current Arlington Transportation Survey, and anticipate two or three "trips" that day; one walking and one or two by transit.

Posted by: Bombo47jea | May 6, 2010 12:08 PM | Report abuse

I was wondering if there is any such thing as a haze forecast for our area. If not I guess there are ways to figure it out based on dew points and whether a front just passed through?

Also, if interested, I wrote a couple posts on my blog about energy saving driving techniques.

Posted by: spgass1 | May 6, 2010 12:15 PM | Report abuse

Yeah, give me about 4 years when the Dulles metro rail project is done. Then I'll get back to you for the answer to that poll.

Until then, it's not practical for me to do any of the 3 options.

Posted by: Havoc737 | May 6, 2010 12:19 PM | Report abuse

Russtinator sounds like the type of "car freaks" I dislike.

It's high time we started to manage our overall fuel consumption by way of World War II-style rationing. This would be the best way to ensure that our fuel supplies are allocated to the most necessary or essential uses. At the same time we would be sending folks like Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and Hugo Chavez a message: namely that we are serious about energy independence, and don't necessarily need THEIR oil if they keep criticizing us. We need to tell Iran that peaceful use of nuclear energy is fine but that we can't trust whether they're not diverting enriched uranium to, or producing plutonium for, weapons applications. At the same time we can't be continually wasting the fuel we have left...this will have to mean FEWER frivolous motor trips, more carpooling and more transit, not this continual round of progressive service cutbacks as Metro keeps doing.

Posted by: Bombo47jea | May 6, 2010 12:34 PM | Report abuse

Just to clarify what I was asking about...

The Air Quality Index could be green, but I don't think that would necessarily guarantee a great mountain view if the humidity was high. Maybe what I'm looking for would be a mileage visibility forecast. I think I've only seen those in real time, not forecast.

Posted by: spgass1 | May 6, 2010 12:54 PM | Report abuse

spgass1 - The D.C. webcam listed above usually shows current haze, although it's sometimes hard to distinguish haze from smog. Current visibility is listed in the NWS and other forecasts. As far as a haze forecast, the best prediction comes from the Air Quality Index (local pages for VA and MD), which includes both particle pollution (haze) and ozone (smog), though it is usually a same-day forecast.

Posted by: Ann-CapitalWeatherGang | May 6, 2010 4:01 PM | Report abuse

I am curious to see which of the three options you and your fellow CWG bloggers will publicly commit to. Your fellow bloggers aren't rushing to sign themselves up.

When you first suggested some time ago that all fuel be rationed, I wondered if you owned a car and if so, how much you drove it. Now that riddle has been solved. ;)

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | May 7, 2010 1:32 AM | Report abuse

I agree with Russtinator, when public transit becomes as useful as say NYC/NJ transit I'll start using it. I try to adhere to #3 as much as possible but too many people don't know how to
drive in this area which makes me drive like crazy. I am the VP and head tech of the Northern Virginia Corvette Club and we teach a car control clinic that teaches people car control
and correct driving just like is required in other countries just to get a driver's license. I feel if everyone had that kind of training the amount of "crazy driving" necessary to get to and from work every day would be next to nothing and everyone would save gas by driving smoother and more efficiently

Posted by: paul-Sterling | May 7, 2010 7:44 PM | Report abuse

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