Regardless of who we are, where we live, what we do, or what our beliefs are, it’s the one true substance we can’t live without. We like to say it’s important to take a breath of fresh air, to clear our heads in the fresh air, yet could the air we breathe be making us sick?
Possibly, according to the American Lung Association, which recently released its 2014 State of the Air report. The report, which looks at ozone and particle pollution across the country, gave Oakland County a failing grade for ozone levels, or what we commonly call smog. Yet, experts with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) and regulators with the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) say all of metro Detroit, including Oakland County, meet federal standards for ozone pollution.
Which is a way of saying, yes and no.
“We disagree with the way they do it,” Joan Weidner, air quality specialist with the Southeastern Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG), said of the Lung Association’s report. “They don’t use EPA standards; they use their own standards. It’s very misleading. We don’t agree with the way they characterize the data.”
Part of Weidner’s role with SEMCOG is to work with the DEQ to achieve permanent air improvements to show the area is meeting the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for various pollutants, including particulate matter, ozone, lead, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide. Overall, Michigan is meeting all of the national air quality standards with exception of lead levels in Ionia County and sulfur dioxide levels in southwest Detroit and the adjacent downriver community, according to the MDEQ.
“They have a lot of concerns about pockets (of pollution), so areas with a lot of diesel traffic, areas like that, they are working to keep those localized areas cleaner,” Weidner said of the Lung Association’s report. “Certainly, in southwest Detroit, where there’s such a high industry concentration, you’ll see an impact, but we meet national standards.”
Overall, the State of the Air report shows that there are many areas of the country that have continued making reductions in year-round particle pollution. The lower levels of particle pollution is a direct result of transitioning to cleaner diesel engines and the clean-up of coal-fired power plants, according to the American Lung Association. Ozone pollution, on the other hand, has been one of the hardest pollutions to reduce.
Ozone is the most widespread pollutant in the United States, as well as one of the most dangerous, according to the American Lung Association. Often called smog, ozone is a gas molecule that is harmful to breathe and attacks lung tissues by reacting chemically with it. The ozone layer found high in the upper atmosphere may shield the earth from the sun’s ultraviolet radiation, but ozone air pollution at ground level can cause other health problems.
According to the Lung Association, researchers found the risk of premature death increases with higher levels of ozone. It’s particularly harmful in the hot summer months, when ozone can lead to shortness of breath; wheezing; coughing; asthma attacks; increased respiratory infections; increased susceptibility to pulmonary inflammation; and increased need for people with lung diseases, such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), to receive medical treatment and to go to the hospital. Inhaling ozone may affect the heart as well as the lungs.
A 2006 study linked exposures to high ozone levels for as little as one hour to a particular type of cardiac arrhythmia that itself increases the risk of premature death and stroke. A French study found that exposure to elevated ozone levels for one to two days increased the risk of heart attacks for middle-aged adults without heart disease. And the American Lung Association states several studies around the world have found increased risk of hospital admissions or emergency department visits for cardiovascular disease.
The EPA also found ozone causes harm. According to a 2013 review on ozone pollution, ozone pollution poses multiple, serious threats to health, including worsened asthma and COPD; the likeliness to cause early death; likeliness to cause cardiovascular harm, such as heart attacks, strokes, heart disease and congestive heart failure; possible harm to the central nervous system; and possible reproductive and developmental harm.
Ozone forms in the atmosphere from gasses that come from vehicle exhaust, industrial smokestacks and other sources. The gasses react and form smog when they come into contact with sunlight. The main ingredients for ozone come from nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons and volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, as well as carbon monoxide. Oil, coal, gasoline and some chemicals are the primary source of ozone pollutants.
Ozone pollution is particularly harmful on hotter days, and often trigger “ozone action day” warnings from the National Weather Service. The warnings are developed using the Air Quality Index, a color-coded scale that the EPA developed to track ozone and particle pollution. The index ranks air pollution on a scale of 0 (perfect) to 500 (hazardous) for air pollution levels that pose an immediate danger to the public. Under the Air Index, an orange warning signifies air that is “Unhealthy for sensitive populations,” which includes small children, older adults and people suffering from asthma or other respiratory problems. A red warning denotes “unhealthy” air for all people, meaning everyone should limit outdoor exertion. According to the Lung Association, Oakland County experienced 18 orange ozone days in 2013 and one red ozone day, down slightly since 1996.
Mary Maupin, air quality analyst for the MDEQ, also said the Lung Association’s grading system skews air pollution figures because it uses a different formula and methodology. Therefore, it’s not uncommon for an area meeting national air quality standards to be given a low grade by the Lung Association.
“It’s always a problem when grading the air comes out,” she said. “They are looking at old data, and they use a different formula than we use for the EPA. That’s how an attainment area can get an F.”
Despite the conflicting opinions on just how harmful the air in Oakland County is in 2014, there is clear agreement that the federal Clean Air Act is helping to improve air quality across the country. While the Lung Association’s report showed that national air quality worsened in 2010-2012, it is much cleaner than a decade ago. Still, 47 percent of the nation lives where pollution levels are too often dangerous to breathe, according to the report.
“We’ve demonstrated progress. We are much cleaner than in the 1970’s or the 1990’s,” Weidner said. “Even in the past decade, there has been a lot of improvement. It’s confusing because the standards change. The air hasn’t gotten dirtier, but it’s a tougher standard.”
In addition to grading ozone levels in the county, the State of the Air report looks at particle pollution, which includes a mix of tiny solid and liquid particles suspended in the air. Referred to as fine Particulate Matter by the EPA and MDEQ, the tiny suspended particles are categorized as either PM-10 – or particles that are larger than 10 microns – or about one-seventh the diameter of a single human hair – and PM-2.5, those particles which are smaller than 2.5 microns. The larger particles may be composed of dust, pollen, mold or other sources, while fine particles may come from combustion particles, organic compounds, metals or other sources.
Because the particles are so small, they may become trapped in a person’s lungs. If small enough, fine particles may even pass into a person’s bloodstream. Similar to how ozone reacts with the body, particle pollution may trigger illness, hospitalization or premature death.
The State of the Air report gave Oakland County an “A” grade for 24-hour particle pollution, meaning there were no warnings for particle pollution in 2013. The report also gave Oakland County a passing grade for annual particle pollution levels.
The ALA method of analysis for ozone and particle pollution is done by assigning increasing weights to days when air pollution levels reach higher ranges. The figures are added together to come up with a weighted average, and grades are based on that calculation. For year-round levels of particle pollution, the Lung Association uses annual average levels calculated by the EPA.
“We are happy to report continued reduction of year-round particle pollution across the nation, thanks to cleaner diesel fleets and cleaner power plants,” said Harold Wimmer, National President and CEO of the American Lung Association. “However, this improvement represents only a partial victory. We know that warmer temperatures increase risk for ozone pollution, so climate change sets the stage for tougher challenges to protect human health. We must meet these challenges head on to protect the health of millions of Americans living with asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. All of us – everyone in every family – have the right to healthy air.”
Locally, reducing ozone levels has been a long and challenging process. The EPA in 2008 strengthened ground-level ozone, raising the standard from .08 parts per million to .075 parts per million. Areas that fail to meet national standards are considered non-attainment areas, and may be subject to some industrial permit restrictions. Oakland County, along with 16 others in the state at the time, were designated non-attainment areas, including Wayne, Washtenaw, St. Clair, Monroe, Macomb, Lenawee Livingston, Lapeer, Benzie, Manistee, Muskegon, Ottawa, Kent, Allegan and Berrien counties. The seven-county Detroit-Ann Arbor area, which includes Oakland County, had ozone levels of .082 at the time.
“Breathing air containing high levels of ozone, a key ingredient in smog, can reduce lung function, trigger respiratory symptoms, and worsen asthma or other respiratory conditions. Ozone exposure also can contribute to premature death, especially in people with heart and lung disease. High ozone levels can also harm sensitive vegetation and forested ecosystems,” the EPA said in a letter to the MDEQ.
Working with SEMCOG, the MDEQ began working on improvements and preparing documentation in an effort to have the EPA re-designate the area as being in attainment. The MDEQ, based on updated ozone monitoring, requested the EPA reconsider the Detroit-Ann Arbor designation. The updated data, according to the MDEQ, showed that only one ozone monitor in the state, which was located in Holland, showed ozone levels above the 2008 standards. On Dec. 9, 2011, the EPA changed the designation for ozone in the entire state to unclassifiable/attainment for the 2008 standards.
“We are showing really good trends in all the region,” SEMCOG’s Weidner said. “There is more than one monitor for all of these (pollutants), and high and low values are all trending downward – but the standards are getting tougher to meet.”
How certain areas are designated is determined by the National Ambient Air Quality Standards. Ambient air is the atmosphere outside of our homes and buildings. Primary national standards are set at levels aimed to protect the public’s health. Secondary standards also exist. All of the standards are based on scientific studies conducted over many years and reviewed every five years to determine if revisions should be made. Standards are expressed in micrograms per cubic meter or parts per million over a specified period of time. The standards are used to regulate six categories of pollutants: particulate matter (both PM-2.5 and PM-10), sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, carbon monoxide and lead.
The most recent standards were set in 2008. However, the EPA is in the process of reviewing the standards, which could result in new, tougher regulations.
“They will announce by the end of the year if they are going to strengthen the standards,” Weidner said.
For those areas designated as non-attainment areas, lowering levels may translate to restrictions or tighter permitting on some industry.
“If you are designated non-attainment, you have some limitations,” Weidner said. “Some kinds of industry can’t locate there or expand, unless they do something to offset (pollution). You have to identify real reductions in the region that will offset (expansion). It makes it tougher.”
Limitations based on ozone levels aren’t currently an issue in the Detroit-Ann Arbor area, but the industry has recognized sources for sulfur dioxide that already face limitations.
“We are looking at four companies that need to reduce sulfur dioxide to develop our plan for attainment: EES Coke Battery; US Steel; a DTE power plant; and Carmeuse Lime,” she said. “Oakland County isn’t showing levels above the standards at their monitor.”
Maupin said the MDEQ is currently working on a plan to meet the national sulfur dioxide standards by working with the source industries.
“Hopefully they are willing to do some reductions,” Maupin said of the four companies. “Otherwise, we will have to do some regulations or legislation.”
The question still remains, however, as to if and how the state will make changes to its air monitoring network if national air quality standards are increased by the EPA in 2015. Maupin also said the EPA has already proposed new greenhouse gas regulations for existing power plants, but that the department is still sifting through the 450 pages of the document and taking comments to return to the EPA.
Last month, the Obama administration announced a proposed rule intended to cut carbon-dioxide emissions from power plants by as much as 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. The “Clean Power Plan” also aims to cut particle pollution, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide by more than 25 percent.
Under the plan, each state will have different goals for cutting emissions, depending on the types of energy produced in their state. Utilities may use various methods for reducing emissions, including implementing more efficient technology, using cleaner alternatives, or participating in cap-and-trade programs, which allow low emissions states to sell credits to higher emissions states.
Meanwhile, the MDEQ continues current monitoring operations to meet federal air quality standards under the Clean Air Act.
The MDEQ’s Ambient Air Monitoring Network Review is conducted annually to determine if any changes are needed to the state’s air monitoring network, based on history, population, distribution and modifications to the federal monitoring requirements under the Clean Air Act. According to the 2015 report, reductions may need to be made to the monitoring network if additional funding isn’t found. Additionally, stronger requirements may be harder to meet without additional funds.
“The MDEQ cannot implement all of the new monitoring requirements without new funding and concomitant reduction in other monitoring equipment due to financial and staffing limitations,” the report states. “Although the EPA has requested funding to support these endeavors, it is unknown if adequate funds will be made available. As a result of state and local air agencies in Region 5, with assistance from the Lake Michigan Air Directors Consortium, they drafted a proposal to identify which monitoring activities can be implemented and which are too costly. As funding becomes available or as changes to the NAAQS are finalized, the MDEQ may be able to gradually implement more of the requirements.”
“Funding is an issue every appropriation year,” Maupin said. “With the federal sequestration, the EPA’s budget has been cut. So, they proposed cutting grants to the state for different things we do. They are proposing cutting many monitors, specifically our speciation monitors that tell us what kind of particle is being collected on a specific filter. We relied heavily on that to develop our strategy to lowering particulates.
“Those monitors are for particles. Now we are talking about ozone standards, and we know the contributing pollutants to ozone are VOCs and NOx. Combustion sources for NOx includes cars, power plants and sources that have boilers and any kind of combustion, including fires. VOC’s are paints, gas, diesel and a lot of chemicals. Source points have been fairly well controlled over the past decades. The wider, smaller sources are probably bigger contributors to the whole, such as dry cleaners, gas stations and boats. There are a lot of different sources,” Maupin continued.
The state’s air monitoring network consists of about 48 different monitoring locations, some of which monitor the air for multiple pollutants. Of the total in the state, those that are located in Oakland County include monitor locations in Oak Park, Pontiac and Rochester. Statewide, air quality monitoring consists of several air monitoring networks, including those that monitor lead, ozone, particulate pollution and its makeup; carbon monoxide; nitrogen dioxides; sulfur dioxide, trace metals, volatile organic compounds, carbonyl; polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbon; and meteorological measurements.
Monitoring of lead is required for point sources, or identified sources of lead pollution, that emit a half ton of lead or more. However, those facilities where modeling indicates little likelihood of violating the NAAQS may be able to obtain a waiver. Statewide, only Belding, Michigan, in Ionia County, is currently listed as a non-attainment area for lead pollution.
In terms of ozone monitoring, the MDEQ’s report states that the Oak Park and Port Huron monitors are the only ozone sites in Oakland and St. Clair Counties, respectively, while Oak Park is violating the 0.075 ppm 8-hour ozone NAAQS, while Port Huron is not. The Ann Arbor area is required to have two ozone monitors, which consists of an Ypsilanti monitor and the downwind monitor in Oak Park. Because there isn’t sufficient space in Washtenaw County to house a downwind monitor to measure maximum ozone concentrations, the Oak Park site is used, even though it is outside of the boundary of the Ann Arbor area. The MDEQ said in its report that it plans to keep the current configuration to preserve historical trend data.
One change that may impact local ozone monitoring could be a more stringent ozone standard and monitoring season for ozone. If the EPA sets a more stringent ozone standard, the length of Michigan’s ozone season may have to be re-evaluated, according to the report. The current ozone season in Michigan runs annually from April 1 through September 30.
The report also notes the reduction of PM-2.5 amounts measured since 2010, which has reduced the number of PM-2.5 monitoring sites required to be operated in some areas. However, the PM-2.5 monitoring site in Oak Park will continue to operate under the state’s plan.
The amount of PM-2.5 pollution in Oakland County was an issue in the past and the basis for a lawsuit filed by Oakland County more than a decade ago that requested the EPA re-designate the county as an attainment area. County officials argued at the time that Oakland County was wrongfully designated as a non-attainment area for fine particulate matter pollution because the source of the pollution was outside of the county’s borders.
“When they established the PM-2.5 standard, the state designated the entire seven-county area as non-attainment,” Weidner said. “The bulk of that decision was due to cars. Oakland County filed suit against them because the monitor in the county showed they weren’t exceeding the standards. In the meantime, a plan was developed and put into place to address that problem. All the counties were later re-designated as attainment.”
At the time, there had been discussions about whether or not the state would resume annual emissions testings for vehicles, a requirement that was eliminated in 1995. Maupin said the concern that vehicle emissions tests would return was based on inspection and maintenance programs required for non-attainment areas under the federal Clean Air Act. She said the issue isn’t likely to come up again based on fine particulate pollution, but future regulations could have different impacts.
“At this point, whether we will be required to under a new, tighter ozone standard would depend on how we are classified,” Maupin said, adding that summer weather is another factor that can skew ozone levels from year to year. “The National Ambient Air Quality Standard is a three-year average. Remember, in 2012, it was very hot and dry. We had high ozone levels throughout the country, so as long as 2012 is in the three-year average, our numbers aren’t looking so good.
“Next year, 2012 drops off, so next year is the average we will be looking at when the EPA sets a new standard.”