Fairfield air quality among worst in nation, study finds

There’s something in the air — and it’s not something good.

Fairfield’s air quality is among the worst in the country, according to a report released by the American Lung Association, which found that six of Connecticut’s eight counties were given “F” ratings for having an excessive amount of ozone in the air. Ozone, which is harmful to respiratory systems, occurs naturally in small quantities at ground level, but carbon emissions from burnt fossil fuels have led to unhealthy amounts of ozone in the air we breathe, the report found.

Casey Harvell, director public policy at the lung association in Massachusetts, told The Fairfield Sun that the elderly and children are most susceptible to being harmed by ozone.

“It is a health threat,” Harvell said. “We encourage everyone to call their lawmakers to let them know you want them to protect our air.”

High levels of ozone have been found to harm lung function, irritate the respiratory system and are linked to asthma, bronchitis, heart attacks and other cardiopulmonary problems. More Connecticut children have asthma than the national average, according to a 2012 state Department of Health study[PDF], so the lung association’s findings has some people worried.

Onté Johnson, a community organizer for the Connecticut branch of the Sierra Club, an environmental advocacy organization, has been working to rid the state of its last coal burning electrical facility, the Bridgeport Harbor Station.

“We’re trying to do everything we possibly can,” Johnson said. “How many reports do we need to show that we really need to start doing something about our air quality now?”

Smog is generally associated with high levels of ozone, but it’s not always the case, Harvell said, making it difficult to simply look outside to see if the air is all right. Heat also contributes to high ozone levels, so air quality during the summer is often the worst. Staying indoors and maintaining a good air filtration system is a way for at-risk populations to stay healthy, the lung association advises.

Fairfield County has had poor air quality since the lung association began using data collected by the Environmental Protection Agency 15 years ago. Between 2010 and 2012, there were 51 days when air quality was bad enough that the lung association suggested limiting outdoor activity. Three days during that time the air was even worse.

In addition to having high amounts of ozone in the air, the lung association reported that Fairfield County received a “C” rating for its particle pollution. These are fine particles that contain microscopic solids or liquid droplets that can cause health problems when inhaled. The EPA found that these particles can be emitted naturally from forest fires, or they can come from gases that react with air after leaving power plants, factories or automobiles.

On the bright side, air quality appears to have improved steadily in Fairfield County since hitting bottom in 2003. Melissa Ficuciello, a communication consultant for Public Service Electrical Group, the company that runs the Bridgeport coal burning electrical plant, said that her company supports tighter emissions regulations.

The Bridgeport facility “is among the cleanest coal-fired generating plants in the nation,” a company statement reads. The company has invested millions to upgrade its emissions technology and continues to meet or exceed regulatory requirements, Ficuciello said.

But Johnson of the Sierra Club hopes the facility can come up with a plan to transition from coal to a cleaner energy source.

“They also recognize that coal is something that is bad for the environment,” Johnson said. “I think they’re trying to figure it out internally what they’re going to do.”

Ficuciello said the company does not have plans to move away from coal burning in Bridgeport.

The company “has no plans to transition away from coal in the near future,” she stated in an email. “Fuel diversity is one of our strengths… and our ability to run on coal during times of natural gas curtailments is a good example of how fuel diversity helps us to maintain a reliable supply of electric energy in Connecticut.”

The Northeast embarked on an aggressive campaign in 2008 to improve its air quality by instituting a cap-and-trade program to curb carbon emissions. The move generated $51.7 million for Connecticut during its first three years, according to a report by Analysis Group [PDF]. Most of this money was used for energy efficiency and other utility programs, as well as audits and benchmarking. The Nutmeg State spent $10.7 million on renewable investments, more than any other state by far.

The trade system, managed by the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative Inc., or RGGI, generated $912 million across all 10 eastern member states. The group auctions off tons of carbon on behalf of power suppliers to offset the carbon dioxide emitted. This provides a financial incentive for companies to burn cleaner.

But as power plants have improved here, many remain outdated and under-regulated in other parts of the country. Since New England sits at the end of a long jet stream, pollutants from those places have settled here. This led to eight state governors, including Connecticut’s, petitioning the EPA to require these upwind states in the Midwest and South to cut back on its ozone-causing emissions.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently upheld the EPA’s cross state rule of the Clean Air Act, which applies to 28 states and is aimed at curbing emissions from some states that then affect others.

“Most upwind states propel pollutants to more than one downwind state, many downwind states receive pollution from multiple upwind states, and some states qualify as both upwind and downwind,” wrote Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the 6-2 decision.

“We’re the tailpipe of the nation,” added Harvell from the American Lung Association. “We’re getting it from all across the nation.”

Automobiles emit a large percentage of the pollutants that contribute to ozone formation, according to the EPA. To curb this impact, it is recommended that people take public transportation, car pool, or invest in hybrid or electric vehicles.

The EPA measures ozone levels at five locations in Fairfield County — Bridgeport, Greenwich, Danbury, Stratford and Westport. It measures airborne particulate at two locations in Bridgeport, and one each in Danbury, Stamford, Norwalk and Westport.

The lung association offers an app for smart phone users that shows the air quality projected for that day (Download it here). People can also check television weather forecasts or call the lung association at 800-LUNGUSA (586-4872).

Smog over New York City. Photo via Wikipedia user Cham

Smog over New York City. Photo via Wikipedia user Cham

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