In the association's "State of the Air 2010" report, the Augusta area's particle pollution is "just under a level that has been recognized by the courts and lots of scientific groups as being unhealthy," said Janice E. Nolen, the assistant vice president for national policy and advocacy for the lung association.
"In our opinion, it is not a healthy level."
Augusta was 23rd on the list of cities with the worst long-term levels of particle pollution. Yet its 14.8 micrograms per cubic meter was just under the EPA's threshold of 15 per cubic meter, Nolen said.
The lung association contends the level should be set at 12 per cubic meter.
The group sued the EPA over the standards and won, and the agency is now going back to review what it considers a safe level, Nolen said.
The association says particle pollution is typically a mixture of ash, soot, diesel exhaust, chemicals, metals and aerosols.
The report showed improvement in many areas, including Atlanta. Much of this is the result of ongoing efforts to clean up emissions from coal-fired power plants, and the impact of cleaner diesel fuel and more clean diesel engines and SUVs, Nolen said. Still, 58 percent of the country -- more than 175 million people -- live in areas with higher levels of air pollution, said Charles D. Connor, the president and CEO of the lung association.
"Nearly six out of 10 Americans lived in areas where the air could be dirty enough to send people to the hospital, dirty enough to shape how kids' lungs develop and even dirty enough to kill," he said.
About 24 million live in counties -- such as Richmond County -- that got an "F" for ozone levels.
The health effects of air pollution -- particularly particle pollution -- are very real, said Dr. Norman Edelman, the chief medical officer for the lung association.
"Here, death is a major complication, is a major effect of particle pollution," he said. "And it is a pervasive problem throughout the country. Even short-term exposure to particle pollution can be deadly."
The air pollution in Augusta definitely adds to the problems of respiratory disease, said Dennis Ownby, the chief of allergy and immunology at Medical College of Georgia Hospital and Clinics. Though health officials agree more needs to be done, it is hard to argue for reforms when the costs are so apparent and the benefits are harder to show, he said.
"It's much harder to quantify the benefits than it is to immediately calculate what the expense is going to be for these modifications," Ownby said. "That kind of slows the effort to make these kinds of changes."
But they can have dramatic effects, he said. During the 1996 Summer Olympics, an effort to cut down on traffic in downtown Atlanta was attributed to a "very large drop" in the number of children showing up with asthma problems, Ownby said.
"Presumably we would see the same kind of thing if we made that kind of substantial reduction in our air pollution level here in Richmond County," he said.