Contributed by Brenda Gomez, Environmental Staff Engineer/Scientist
August is the homestretch of summer, when people take to the beach, barbecue, and generally try to enjoy as much outdoor time as possible before the Labor Day holiday portends the onset of school, shorter days, and colder weather. Unfortunately, summer is also when air quality is at its worst. Heat waves like the ones we have been enjoying lately create photochemical oxidants as the sun’s ultraviolet radiation cooks the air to produce a layer of ozone smog.
Just this past July, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) and the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH) issued five Air Quality Advisory notices. Like many large US cities, New York is afflicted not only with higher concentrations of ozone, but also particulate matter. Epidemiologic studies in cities have found associations between air quality showing high levels of ozone and particulate matter and hospitalization for pulmonary diseases and premature mortality rates.
The federal air quality standard for ozone is 10 parts per billion (ppb); most US cities range between 60 to 70 ppb. The standard for particulate matter is 10 micrometers or larger (smaller particles remain suspended in the air longer and thus are more readily inhaled). Studies have shown that ozone exposure of around 60 ppb can significantly impact lung and heart function in healthy adults, and that exposure to particulate matter at 2.5 micrometers or less adversely affects pulmonary and cardiovascular function. In both cases, short-term symptoms are respiratory episodes, asthma attacks, and cardiovascular events.
Poor air quality is exacerbated by human activity, such as combustion and exhaust of fossil fuels, construction tasks, and industrial air waste. Summertime conditions such as humidity and hot temperatures worsen the presence of particulate matter and ozone.
The Environmental Protection Agency has joined forces with local and state agencies such as NYSDEC and NYSDOH to monitor and mitigate the potential hazards associated with poor air quality. The result is AirNOW, which provides air pollution data, ozone forecasting, and information about public health and environmental effects of air pollution through radio, internet, and mobile apps. AirNOW collects readings for particulate matter in one-to-three-day intervals, and monitors ozone every eight hours during warm weather months.
At particular risk of excessive exposure to particulate matter and ozone are people who work outdoors, such as construction workers. HAKS works to ensure the safety of its employees, especially those most at risk of exposure. Joining efforts with NYSDEC and NYSDOH, HAKS closely follows OSHA standards that address poor air quality. Where necessary, HAKS implements air monitoring and engineered mitigation methods.
However, it is our part, as individuals, to take charge of our health by knowing our physical limits, sharing this with co-workers and supervisors, and being aware of public health concerns communicated by the relevant agencies. By being aware of the risks and implementing procedures that can help limit exposure to pollutants, we can weather the season of ozone and move on to the more prosaic risks of snow, ice, and sleet.