Cincy Science: With summer comes smog, so here's what we can do to improve the air

CINCINNATI -- It's summer in the Tri-State, that means swimming pools, cookouts, outdoor concerts and...smog.

With temperatures rising, the risk of poor air quality also increases. While Cincinnati is in no danger of reaching the levels of Beijing, we can still expect our share of bad air.

To get some insight into the causes of poor air quality and what we can expect in the Tri-State, we talked to Alison Davis, senior advisor for public affairs in EPA’s  Research Triangle Park office.

1. What is smog?

Smog is a word that's commonly used for the pollutant called ground level ozone. If you think about ozone, it actually forms in the atmosphere when emission from cars, trucks, buses, industries, power plants and consumer products like some paints cook in the sun. So hot, sunny days make it easier for ozone to form.

Ozone can form a long distance from those motor vehicles, industries and power plants that emit the pollutants that form ozone. And two key pollutants are volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxide. We call them VOCs and NOXs and they're the key ingredients in ozone. So ozone can form a long way from the emissions that form it. And ozone itself can travel long distances on the wind. So both urban and rural areas can have days when ozone levels are high.

2. What sort of health risks are posed by smog?

In the stratosphere way above the Earth's surface, ozone protects us from the sun's harmful rays. That's the ozone in the ozone layer. But at ground level where we breath, ozone is harmful. Ozone is linked to a number of harmful health effects including aggravating asthma and other chronic lung diseases like emphysema. Breathing air that contains ozone can irritate your respiratory system. And it can make you cough or sometimes feel pain when you take a deep breath. Ozone can reduce your lungs' ability to function, so you can't breathe as deeply as you normally would - especially if you're exercising. It can inflame and actually damage the cells that line your lungs, making them more susceptible to infection. And over time, exposure to ozone can cause permanent lung damage.

3. Who is most at risk from exposure?

The number one group is children, because children's lungs are still developing. They breath more air per pound of body weight than we do as adults and they're also more likely to be active outdoors. There are other groups of people who are at increased risk too and they include people with asthma, emphysema or other lung diseases and that includes older adults. It also includes people of all ages who are active outdoors even if they're healthy.

4. What are some ways to minimize exposure?

If you have a day when ozone is forecast to be high, there are some things you can do. First of all, check the Air Quality Index forecast and use that to plan your outdoor activities. You can also download a free air-now app on that website for iPhones and Android phones so you can check air quality wherever you are.

5. How about outdoor activities like exercise?

If you check the AQI - Air Quality Index forecast -- you know that ozone tends to be high later in the day. So you can switch your outdoor activities like running or even heavy gardening tasks like moving mulch, anything that makes you breathe heavier and faster. Move those activities to the morning and that will help reduce your exposure. There are some days where you want to work out in the gym instead of outside or other things you can do to scale back. Maybe instead or running five miles, you run two miles, or instead of that two mile run, go for a walk. Because you're scaling back on the amount of time you're breathing in air with ozone or you're not breathing as hard and that reduces your exposure too. But you don't have to stay indoors.

6. How has 2014 been so far in terms of air quality?

So far this year, we haven't had any days where the air quality index reached code orange or above. What code orange means is air quality is unhealthy for at-risk groups - and that's the children, people with asthma and other groups we talked about earlier.

Last summer was cooler and wetter than normal, so there were only three days when ozone reached that code orange level. But there were more in 2012 when we had one of the hottest summers on record in the lower 48 states. In 2012, Cincinnati had 25 code orange ozone days and four code red days when ozone was unhealthy for everyone.

7. What is the worst year on record for smog?

Nationwide, ozone levels were the highest during the summer of 1988. It was a hot, dry summer in the eastern U.S. Ozone levels have improved significantly since then. Between 1988 and 2012, which is our most recent data, ozone levels dropped 28 percent. But we know that we have more work to do because in 2012, 133 million people in the United States lived in counties where ozone levels were above our national standard.

8. Besides cutting down on road trips, what can we do to reduce smog levels?

The EPA has a number of rules in place that are helping to reduce

smog and will help reduce smog in the future. But there are some things we can do as individuals:

- You mentioned not driving, and if you commute you can take public transit or carpool when you can.
- Think about using less electricity. You can keep your house slightly warmer and that will reduce pollution from the power plant that contributes to ozone. It also helps keep your power bills down.
- Little things like turning the lights off when you leave the room - the things your mom and dad always got after you to do.
- Keep your car tuned up and make sure your tires are properly inflated because it helps you use less gas.
- If you're using garden chemicals or paint around the house, use those in ways to keep the evaporation to a minimum. Make sure you're putting the lids back on or try to delay using them if the air quality index is poor.
- The vapors in gas contain some of the pollutants that contribute to ozone when it's sunny out. So fill your car up after the sun goes down.

There are more tips available at http://www.airnow.gov/ and we encourage people to go check it out.

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