Air quality in Augusta has violated new federal ozone standards nine times this summer, prompting a call from environmentalists for better public health advisories.
"Everybody thinks air pollution is just Atlanta," said Robert Pregulman of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a watchdog organization. "But Augusta has almost as many violations as Gwinnett County. It's not an Atlanta issue, it's a Georgia issue."
Ozone -- the odorless gas formed when nitrogen oxides mix with volatile organic compounds in the presence of sunlight -- is largely attributable to automobile exhaust. Older power plants also produce ozone.
Last fall, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tightened its standards for clean air, citing medical evidence that showed ozone levels within earlier standards caused lung inflammation, aggravated asthma, reduced immune system functions and contributed to premature death.
Ozone was traditionally measured on a standard in which levels at any given hour could not exceed 0.120 parts per million. Augusta's air quality rarely violated that standard.
Under EPA's new rules, ozone is now measured in eight-hour averages that cannot exceed 0.080 parts per million.
Although Augusta's air is no more polluted than in past years, it no longer meets federal Clean Air Act standards.
"Based on that new standard, Augusta has nine violations, the same as Macon," Mr. Pregulman said. By comparison, Columbus had six violations and Savannah, assisted by coastal breezes, had none.
In the smog-heavy metro Atlanta area, Conyers had 22 violations this year and 23 violations were recorded at a monitoring station on Confederate Avenue in Atlanta. Gwinnett County had 10 violations.
Overall, Georgia ranks third among 50 states, with violations detected 46 percent of the days since May, according to PIRG's report on ozone nationwide.
Although new standards were adopted last year, Georgia's Environmental Protection Division, which monitors air pollution, only issues health advisories if ozone levels exceed the old standards.
"We think EPD should give warnings," Mr. Pregulman said. "What we've learned since (the Clean Air Act was adopted in) 1990 is that air pollution affects people much more significantly than previously thought."
EPD currently uses a combination of factors -- including the old ozone standard -- to determine if an advisory is needed, said Rafael Ballagas of EPD's Ambient Air Monitoring Division.
"We're still using the old standard to provide information to the public," he said. "And EPA is revising its pollution index to make it better. As of yet, they haven't finalized their reporting methodology, and for that reason we have not jumped into the reporting of the eight-hour standard yet."
Even if EPD were using the new, eight-hour ozone standard to issue public health advisories, they likely would be of little benefit to the public, he said.
"In order for me to let you know if an eight-hour average exceeds the maximum levels, we have to wait until the eight hours is over," he said. "And by that time, the levels have subsided."
EPD does have a toll-free number, 1-800-427-9605, through which the public can access current air pollution in most Georgia cities, including Augusta.
More detailed data is available by accessing EPD's Web site, www.dnr.state.ga.us/dnr/environ/ and clicking onto "Georgia's Environment," and then "ambient air monitoring."