- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 1, 2005

Los Angeles isn’t just the City of Angels, it’s the unofficial Metropolis of Smog.

The District may be an entire coast removed from L.A., but the nation’s capital has its own problem with polluted air.

According to the American Lung Association’s 2005 State of the Air report, the Greater Washington area ranks as the 11th most ozone-polluted city in the nation. Worse, the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America cites the District as No. 5 in its Asthma Capitals listing for 2005 — a precipitous jump from last year, when the city came in at No. 50.

Earlier this week, Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Virginia Gov. Mark Warner teamed with District Mayor Anthony A. Williams to ink an agreement creating the Interstate Air Quality Council. The group is directed to keep the region in compliance with the Clean Air Act. Despite massive pollutant reductions over the past 15 years, the area is threatening to violate the long-standing act.

Smog’s effects can be legion. It can cause poor visibility, damage the environment and wreak havoc on people’s health, particularly their breathing.

Chemically speaking, smog is a blend of pollutants including burned fossil fuels and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted by materials such as paint and solvents.

Ozone, often used interchangeably with the term smog, consists of three atoms of oxygen and is found in the Earth’s upper and lower atmospheres, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The upper atmosphere, which protects us from the sun’s ultraviolet light, lies roughly 10 to 30 miles above the Earth. Ozone there is created naturally. In the lower level, located near ground level, ozone is formed when pollutants such as car and power-plant emissions react chemically with sunlight. Ground-level ozone is to blame when a person’s breathing is affected by the air he or she breathes.

George Washington University’s Ivan Cheung says smog is a concern in the District for a number of reasons, including the high volume of exhaust-belching cars circling the Beltway each day.

It also has gotten worse since the mid-1980s, even if the last few mild summers have slowed that degression.

The other damage is being done by VOCs, hydrocarbons that are very reactive to heat, says Mr. Cheung, assistant professor of geography at the Foggy Bottom university.

Some VOCs can’t be blamed on mankind. Some are caused naturally by vegetation, he says.

Geography is partly to blame for murkier skies.

“We’re downwind from the Midwest,” he says, adding that those winds can carry VOCs from trees that emit them toward our region.

Bill Ryan, who provides air-quality forecasts for Philadelphia, Washington and Baltimore for Penn State University, says another factor weighing against the capital region is the number of older power plants in the Ohio River Valley.

Those plants aren’t regulated as vigorously as newer models, which means pollutants from them impact the air quality of much of the mid-Atlantic region, Mr. Ryan says.

With summer nearly here, expect the smog to get worse even if it isn’t directly related to the weather.

“You can have hot weather without high ozone levels … or you can have hot weather, but you’re getting southeasterly winds off the ocean that are much cleaner,” Mr. Ryan says.

“Heat is necessary but not sufficient for poor air quality,” he says. “For high ozone levels, you need sun. Ozone is a photochemical pollutant.”

One way smog plays directly with the sun’s rays is during sunsets. When a reddish sun sinks into the sunset, smog is to blame.

“Ozone itself is colorless,” he says. If enough oxides and nitrogen are in the air, however, it can give off a reddish-brown tinge. “Certain aerosols scatter light in different wavelengths,” Mr. Ryan says.

One of the key concerns regarding smog is how it affects our breathing.

Mike Tringale, director of communications with the District-based Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, says airborne pollutants common to smog can bring respiratory problems to asthma sufferers as well as persons without asthma.

Such pollutants typically are categorized as either allergens or irritants. The latter simply inhibit breathing, constricting the bronchial tubes. The former don’t just irritate lung tissue, Mr. Tringale says, they spark an immune response in the body.

“The body misinterprets [protein particles] as a dangerous foreign substance, and the immune system kicks in,” he says. “The body overreacts to [an allergen such as] tree pollen, for example.”

Researchers sometimes can’t tell if the public’s generalized breathing woes stem from smog or general allergies.

Bruce Doddridge, an associate research scientist at the University of Maryland’s department of meteorology, says the Clean Air Act of 1970 and amendments added in subsequent years gave residents nationwide some breathing room when it comes to smog.

“Across the board, urban air quality has improved,” Mr. Doddridge says.

Mr. Cheung advises District residents to take whatever small measures they can to decrease local smog levels.

Beyond using public transportation when feasible, people can choose not to paint their homes’ exteriors during the day because paint emits VOCs, and avoid pumping gas during daylight hours on ozone alert days. Hydrocarbons are released as the gas runs from the pump into the car’s tank, he says.

“It’s a small amount of VOCs,” he says, “but if you have hundreds of thousands of people doing the same thing, it adds up.”

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