In Case You Missed It - Everyone agrees: WNC air quality is getting better

Raleigh

RALEIGH – Air quality in North Carolina has improved significantly during the past few decades.

Air monitor data shows that air pollutant emissions have declined by a staggering 80 percent since 2000, and carbon dioxide emissions have been reduced by 20 percent since 2005. In fact, this summer the federal government officially recognized that North Carolina is now in attainment for all pollutants in all areas across the state, a milestone that was last achieved in 1997.

The Asheville Citizen-Times’ reporter Mark Barrett chronicled these air quality improvements in the following article published Saturday:

Everyone agrees: WNC air quality is getting better

Mark Barrett

The Asheville Citizen-Times (link is external)

September 5, 2015

ASHEVILLE – In the late 1990s, careful planning for a run or hike on a hot summer day called for a look at the weather forecast and, more importantly, a check on predictions for the day's air quality.

Skipping that last step could have set up a lung-searing slog through a hazy day.

North Carolina health officials in 1999 alone issued 111 orange or red warnings for “bad air days” — days on which sensitive groups or everyone was warned against exercising outside.

None were made last year, reflecting cleaner air in the state and mountains that likely helped cut death rates for asthma, pneumonia and emphysema.

In Western North Carolina, peak levels of ground-level ozone, which irritates lungs and is most prevalent during warm weather, topped daily standards on the high ridge just west of Mount Pisgah for 21 days in 1998 and 24 days in 1999.

Down the mountain in Bent Creek, a more long-term measure of ozone levels exceeded federal limits for years at a time in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

These days, when visitors take in long-range views in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, “The mountains are green and the skies are blue more often than not,” said Jim Renfro, air quality specialist for the park. “Fifteen years ago that was the exception. Now the exception is the hazy days.”

When the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in July said the Charlotte area was reaching EPA standards for ozone, it meant the state was in compliance with federal measures of air quality “for all pollutants in all areas across the state” for the first time since 1997, when much less stringent standards were in effect, the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources said.

DENR called that step “a milestone capping years of improvements in air quality.”

Experts attribute the shift to tougher federal and state regulations, notably North Carolina's 2002 Clean Smokestacks Act. Air pollution remains a health concern and still can cloud mountain views, but many experts and activists have shifted their focus on air quality issues to reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to slow global warming.

Cleaner and clearer

By virtually all accounts, the efforts worked. In WNC, the concentration of fine particles in the air, like dust, smoke and soot, dropped by 41 percent in Buncombe County from 2000-02 to 2011-13 and by 38 percent over the same period in Haywood County.

Ozone levels fell 26 percent from their 1998-2000 peak in Buncombe County to 2012-14 and 28 percent in Haywood.

Visibility in the mountains on the haziest days improved from nine miles in 1998 to 32 miles in 2013, DENR says. On clear days, it increased from 51 miles in 1997 to 91 miles in 2013.

“Ten years ago, people used to comment when the air was clear, when they could see the mountains” because that was relatively unusual, said Keith Bamberger, a state air quality official based in Buncombe County. “Now people comment when you can't.”

Falling death rates for three key respiratory illnesses have accompanied the decline in air pollution, researchers at Duke University found. The rate for deaths from emphysema fell about 27 percent from 2000 to the end of the decade, roughly 22 percent for asthma, and 17 percent for pneumonia.

The researchers wrote last year that their findings “support the hypothesis that improvement in air quality ... contributed to the improved respiratory health of the North Carolina population” though they said they cannot be certain that cleaner air caused the change.

To read the full article, visit http://www.citizen-times.com/story/news/local/2015/09/05/everyone-agrees-wnc-air-quality-getting-better/71772948/ .

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