Breathing impaired

Inhale deeply.

Do it on a hot day in most the region, and there's a good chance you're breathing in microscopic particles of soot and smog at levels near or above what experts say can harm your body.

And that's without smoke drift from the more than 500,000 acres of wildfires that have scorched southeast Georgia and northeast Florida this spring. With weather forecasts calling for above-average temperatures and for drought conditions to worsen, keeping the possibility of wildfires high, the area likely will suffer from poor air quality this summer.

A month into smog season, many days have seen air dirty enough to violate federal standards.

How we fare the rest of the season, which ends Sept. 30, depends on the weather and the amount of emissions spewing from vehicles and industrial plants and whether wildfires spread.

Susan Zimmer-Dauphinee, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division's ambient monitoring program manager, said levels of ozone, the main summertime pollutant, are tied to weather conditions.

"So far, we're pretty average," Ms. Zimmer-Dauphinee said the first month of this year's smog season. "If we have a hot, dry summer, we will probably have lots of ozone-exceedent days."

Georgia cities such as Athens and Augusta are recording air violations and struggling to ward off "nonattainment," a label from federal regulators that brings extra burdens and costs both for individuals and industry - from more expensive gasoline to costly plant emission controls.

Atlanta has recorded three days of violating the ozone limit while Augusta has had one day above the limit so far this year.

Ozone measurements are taken with equipment posted throughout the state. Cities have to remain below 0.08 parts per million during an eight-hour average to keep from exceeding the federal limits.

EPA sets the limits as health-based standards, said Ms. Zimmer-Dauphinee.

"Researchers look at the air and the effect that it has on people based on the work over a several-year time period," she said.

The impact

Nine percent of the nation's children, or 6.5 million, suffer from asthma, which, besides being linked to air quality by researchers, can also be affected by allergens, tobacco smoke and smoke from fires.

Many state environmental groups say that if air pollutants drop below or meet federal standards, rates for asthma and other respiratory problems would drop also.

"Asthma is not just a two-syllable word," said Ela Orenstein, a staff attorney with the Georgia Center for Law in the Public Interest.

Ms. Orenstein spoke recently to state utility regulators who are weighing future electricity needs and urged them to not approve more coal-burning power plants because of their particle emissions.

She said the costs for taking care of Georgia children with asthma are estimated at $28 million a year.

Toeing the line

Augusta has spent the past few years battling with air standards.

Several years ago, city officials agreed to forge an early action compact with the EPA to avoid the nonattainment designation for ozone. It meant the city agreed to try voluntary controls to improve its air quality before the stricter regulations became mandatory.

"They're still on the cusp, but they're on the good side of the cusp from where they were," said Michael Chang, a senior research scientist in Georgia Tech's School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. "They still need to be wary and diligent."

But monitoring changes is expected to give Augusta and many other Georgia cities a new standard to worry about.

Though Augusta has had to closely watch its annual averages for fine particulate matter to keep the city under the limit, the allowable daily amounts were not high enough to cause concern.

But the EPA has cut its daily limits nearly in half and will start enforcing the new measurements.

Cities were allowed to show as much as 65 micrograms per cubic meter of small particles floating in the air during a 24-hour period. Now, cities are not supposed to exceed 35 micrograms per cubic meter each day.

"It's back in play now," Mr. Chang said about the daily standard. "It seems there are a lot of areas that are not meeting that standard now."

Augusta city officials and business representatives continue to work on the air-quality issues, said Scott MacGregor, the vice president for the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce.

"For both ozone and particulate matter, there's potential impacts on growth and development," he said.

But he pointed out that restrictions caused by nonattainment designations do not affect all types of companies, though they do make it harder to attract medium to heavy industry.

"The two major job announcements in the past few months have been call centers," Mr. MacGregor said. "Those projects don't have anything to do with nonattainment status."

For those concerned about the health and environmental consequences of air pollutants, the attainment boundary is not as important as the impact.

"I think if you're a little bit on either side, it's kind of hard to breathe," said Jennette Gayer, an advocate with the non-profit group Environment Georgia. "If we're just a little bit below that point, that doesn't actually matter to that kid who has asthma."

Reach Vicky Eckenrode at (678) 977-4601 or vicky.eckenrode@morris.com.

OZONE

AIR REPORT CARD

Here is how various Georgia counties fared between 2003 and 2005, the most recent annual measurements available, in ozone and fine particle pollution:
CountyGradeOrange Days*Red Days**
ChathamA00
ClarkeC50
FultonF153
GlynnA00
RichmondC40
SMALL PARTICLES
CountyGradeOrange Days*Red Days**
ChathamC50
ClarkeC30
FultonF303
GlynnC30
RichmondD70

*Orange means levels made the air unhealthy for sensitive groups such as children and people with heart or lung disease. ** Red means levels made the air unhealthy for everyone.

Georgia Environmental Protection Division keeps tabs of ozone and fine particles in the air that can be harmful if they get too high. For daily updates from around the state, go to:

www.air.dnr.state.ga.us/amp

Source: American Lung Association, State of the Air 2007 report