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EPA announces drop in ‘Smog-Alert Days' in New England this year; Agency unveils new public notification tool for small particle pollution

Release Date: 10/01/2003
Contact Information: Peyton Fleming, EPA Press Office, 617-918-1008

BOSTON - At the close of the 2003 summer ozone season, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today announced that New Englanders experienced fewer smoggy days this year than in 2002. The decrease in the number of days with unhealthy ozone this year was directly related to a decrease in the number of hot days.

EPA New England also announced today that the agency is now providing daily updates on its web site of pollution levels from small particles across New England. The data, posted on the agency website at http://www.epa.gov/region1/oms, is based on sampling results from 19 monitoring stations across the region.

Although the 2003 ozone season has ended, pollution from small particles in the air is a year-round concern. Particle pollution comes from a variety of sources, including cars and trucks, industrial sources, fossil fuel-fired power plants and fires, and is linked to significant public health risks, including premature death from heart and lung disease. Particle pollution also contributes to reduced visibility, or haze.

"While smog pollution is still a big public health concern in New England, the public also needs to be aware that particles in the air can cause or aggravate a number of health problems and have been linked with illnesses and deaths from heart or lung disease," said Robert W. Varney, regional administrator of EPA's new England Office. "To help broaden awareness of small-particle pollution, EPA is announcing the availability of daily particle pollution forecasts and real-time particle pollution levels in New England."

So far this year, there have been 14 days in New England when particle levels reached unhealthy levels. EPA New England's smog alert program, which sends messages on high ozone levels to more than 2,000 organizations, has been expanded to include warnings for elevated particle levels and to operate year-round. Organizations and individuals can sign up at http://www.epa.gov/region1/oms to receive air quality alerts by fax or e-mail. In addition, daily forecasts for particle levels in areas throughout New England are available at this web address. Also, as part of the new reporting on particles, maps showing real-time particle levels across New England are available at this web site.

Based on preliminary data from May through September this year, there were 17 days when ozone monitors in New England recorded concentrations above levels considered healthy. Last year, there were a total of 43 unhealthy days. Ground level ozone, the main ingredient of smog, is unhealthy when average concentrations exceed 0.08 parts per million over an 8-hour period.

The number of unhealthy ozone days in each state this summer were as follows: 14 days in Connecticut (compared to 36 in 2002); 11 days in Massachusetts (30 in 2002); 10 days in Rhode Island (17 in 2002); five days in Maine (17 in 2002); one day in New Hampshire (13 in 2002); and no days in Vermont (five in 2002).

The decrease in unhealthy ozone days this year resulted from a significant decrease in the number of days hotter than 90 degrees Fahrenheit in New England. The formation of ground level ozone smog is exacerbated by sunlight and high temperatures.

Over the long-term, New England has seen a decreasing number of ozone days and peak ozone concentrations have significantly decreased over the last 30 years.

"When we look back to the air quality conditions a generation ago, we can feel proud of the advances we've made in reducing pollution," Varney said. "The fact that we still see unhealthy days during cool summers, however, reminds us that our efforts for cleaner cars and fuels and our commitment to reducing power plant emissions must continue."

Historical charts of unhealthy air days from 1983 through 2003 are available for each state on EPA New England's web site at: http://www.epa.gov/region01/eco/ozone/standard.html. A preliminary list of the unhealthy readings recorded this summer by date and monitor location, and corresponding air quality maps for each day, can be found at: http://www.epa.gov/region1/eco/ozone/o3exceed-03.html.

Ground-level ozone (smog) is formed when volatile organic compounds and oxides of nitrogen chemically react in the presence of sunlight. Cars, trucks and buses give off the majority of the pollution that makes smog. Fossil fuel burning at electric power plants, which run at high capacities on hot days, gives off significant amounts of smog-making pollution. Gas stations, print shops, household products like paints and cleaners, as well as gasoline-powered lawn and garden equipment, also contribute to smog formation.

Exposure to elevated ozone levels can cause serious breathing problems, and aggravate asthma and other pre-existing lung diseases. It can also make people who are vulnerable more susceptible to respiratory infection. Studies have shown an association between ozone levels in the outdoor air and increased hospital admissions for respiratory causes, such as asthma. Ozone air pollution in the northeastern United States has been associated with as much as 10 to 20 percent of all summertime respiratory hospital visits and admissions.

EPA has taken a number of steps to further reduce air pollution. Beginning in 2004, tougher tailpipe emission standards for cars and light-duty trucks, including sport utility vehicles, and limits on the amount of sulfur in gasoline will result in dramatically cleaner vehicles. In addition, EPA has taken aggressive steps to reduce pollution from power plants in the eastern United States. Nineteen eastern states and the District of Columbia have adopted requirements that establish emission caps on the amount of nitrogen oxide emissions that can be emitted from power plants from May through September each year. These emissions caps have to be met by 2004 and will result in significant reductions in nitrogen oxide emissions.

Also, the Administration's Clear Skies Initiative establishes mandatory reduction targets for emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and mercury from power plants nationwide. If passed by Congress, the Clear Skies Initiative would reduce emissions of these three key pollutants by 70 percent over the next 15 years. If passed by Congress, Clear Skies would achieve immediate and dramatic reductions in particle pollution.

Additional improvements in air quality are also expected as states begin to develop plans to meet the new 8-hour health-based ozone standard adopted by EPA. The first step in this process is for areas to be designated attainment or nonattainment for the standard. Recommendations of potential nonattainment areas were submitted by states this past this summer and EPA will formally designate areas by April 15, 2004. A map showing the New England states' 8-hour nonattainment recommendations can be found at: http://www.epa.gov/region01/images/nattain-8hr.gif.