Making a better future for the next generation in North Carolina.

How Clean Do We Want to Make the Air by 2040?

by | Feb 8, 2023 | Air Quality, Future, Nature, North Carolina, Well-being | 0 comments

We seldom think about air — unless it stinks, or we see a haze of pollution, or an asthma attack deprives us of breath. When these happen, air is all we think about.

Fifty years ago, each of those things happened a lot. The public demanded action. Clean air became a major political issue. The landmark Clean Air Act of 1970 won votes from large majorities of both parties in Congress.

Things improved. The Environmental Protection Agency reports great progress in nation-wide air quality since 1990:

· Carbon monoxide down 79%

· Lead down 85%

· Nitrogen dioxide down 61%

· Sulfur dioxide down 91%

· Particulate matter down 33%

So, what about the air in North Carolina? Is it good enough to pass on to our grandchildren when they become adults in the 2040s? Or is there more work to do?

How does air pollution affect us?

The stuff our cars, planes, trains, and industries spew into the air does two things. Some of it chemically transforms our pleasant 99% oxygen/nitrogen air mixture (like a spring morning in Montana) into stuff like ozone, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides. Some of it – like smoke, dust, lead, and organic compounds just hangs in the air as little particles. All of it waiting to invade our lungs.

The National Institute of Environmental Health Services has a nifty website that lists what studies have found once those little compounds and particles get into our kids and grandkids’ lungs. At high enough levels, the effects are not pretty:

· Breast cancer

· Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma

· Lung cancer

· Calcification of arteries

· Hemorrhagic stroke

· Hypertensive disorders

· Low birth weight babies

· Emphysema and other respiratory diseases

· Asthma in children

· Chronic bronchitis

· ADHD related behavior in children

· Risk of dementias in older adults

Beyond the personal health effects, there is growing concern about how carbon dioxide, methane, and other released gases are creating a greenhouse effect that is warming our planet. (More about the effects of climate change on North Carolina in a future post.) The interesting point now is that reducing the burning of fossil fuels could help improve our health as well as limit climate change. It’s a two-fer.

How is North Carolina doing on air quality?

The health effects discussed by the NIEHS are the stuff of nightmares. But they don’t come from a one-time exposure to a tiny amount of pollution. Congress charged the EPA to develop standards with an “adequate margin of safety” for the quantity of six principal pollutant in the air.

The EPA staff and outside advisors believe that — if states keep pollutants in the air below these levels — almost no one’s health will be affected. Those targets are called the National Ambient Air Quality Standards.

North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality claims that “Since 2015, all areas of North Carolina are in attainment with all federal NAAQS. Bravo North Carolina! “attainment” means you met the standard.

It hasn’t been easy. Over the years, NC had to develop a regulatory framework that affected every industry that emitted pollutants into the air — from crushed stone operations and asphalt plants to log fumigation operations. Individuals are also affected by requirements for annual emission inspections on their cars in 22 of NC’s 100 counties.

Good enough for our grandkids?

One of the many great things about America is that government experts don’t always get the last word on public health. It’s hard to argue there has not been progress on cleaning up the air, but is it enough? Some folks don’t think so:

The American Lung Association holds states to stricter criteria than the EPA for ozone and particulate pollution incidents. In its most recent annual “Report Cards,” it awards an “F” to Mecklenburg County (Charlotte area) for exceeding standards for days with dangerous levels of ground-level ozone.

Clean AIRE NC, a Charlotte-based research and advocacy group, now focuses on issues NAAQS don’t measure. While still concerned about traditional pollutants, they are expanding their focus to how the emission of greenhouse gases are affecting our children’s future, and how localized pollution affects specific communities, for instance around hog farms.

What can you do?

After my brief survey, it seems clear that the nation-wide picture on air pollution is a very good one in the U.S. Lots of improvement over the Baby Boomer Age. Maybe that’s one thing we got right!

The future fights will be over local pollution issues and currently uncontrolled greenhouse gases that are destabilizing our climate. We have come a long way, but there is always more work to be done to make the best future for the next generation in our states.

If these issues are close to your heart, here is a practical way to get involved — become an interested citizen and make public comments on new regulations or industrial air permits in your area. In North Carolina, it’s Air Quality Permitting.

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