High ozone levels found in seven Piedmont counties
By Kathy Chaffin
Center for the Environment
SALISBURY — The more than 100 people who attended Thursday evening’s presentation at the Center for the Environment facility on the Catawba College campus learned they had something in common: high ozone levels.
They heard about the results of a Piedmont Carolina summer air monitoring study conducted by the Center for the Environment through its Campaign for Clean Air and Dr. Cindy DeForest Hauser, associate professor of chemistry at Davidson College.
The team analyzed data from sample collectors placed in the backyards of homes in Rowan, Cabarrus, Iredell, Davidson, Mecklenburg and Gaston counties in North Carolina and York County in South Carolina over an eight-week period from May 31 to July 26.
Dr. John Wear, the Center’s executive director, noted that the Center engaged in the study to determine if counties that currently do not have N.C. Division of Air Quality (NCDAQ) ozone monitors have ozone levels similar to the levels in Rowan and Mecklenburg, which do have monitors.
“Often people in the surrounding counties are under the misconception that ozone is a local issue and not a regional issue,” he said. “What we found was that generally the (ozone levels) were very similar if not higher in the counties without NCDAQ monitors. I think that’s really important because, in our own outreach, we find that a lot of people in these surrounding counties don’t realize there is an issue.”
The American Lung Association (ALA) has listed Rowan and Mecklenburg as having some of the worst ground-level ozone in the nation. The ALA’s 2011 State of the Air Report identified Rowan as being 17th in the nation for ozone pollution in the counties monitored, followed by Mecklenburg in 21st place. Those rankings might have been different if the other counties in the study had NCDAQ ozone monitors. Charlotte-Gastonia-Salisbury ranked as the 10th worst metropolitan area for ozone pollution.
While the study revealed that ozone levels were on average the same in all seven counties, a week-by-week analysis demonstrated that ozone levels in Cabarrus appear to be higher than levels in Rowan – and ozone levels in Iredell appear to be higher than levels in Rowan and Davidson. So when people in the counties without monitors hear of ozone level warnings for residents of Rowan and Mecklenburg counties, they need to take the same precautions.
The color-coded Air Quality Index alerts citizens about ozone levels and their likely impact on health. The index ranges from a low of green, which indicates that air quality is good, to a high of purple, which signifies that the level of pollution is hazardous to everyone’s health.
The summer air monitoring study was unique in that it involved volunteers from each of the counties. Each volunteer was trained by June McDowell, Campaign for Clean Air intern, on how to put out collectors with tubes and filters to measure ozone and nitrogen oxide (NOx) levels in the air. The collectors were placed on trees and telephone poles in people’s yards.
Two undergraduate research students — Juliana Porter, a senior at Davidson, and Alexandra Buckley, a junior at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte – helped Hauser analyze the data.
Hauser said she was pleased with how the study worked out. “It has been a wonderful collaboration,” she said. “This kind of work could not occur without the efforts of a whole bunch of people.”
A panel representing regional health, economic and governmental organizations talked about the ramifications of ozone pollution in the area. Serving on the panel were Dr. Chris Magryta of Salisbury Pediatrics; Robert Van Geons of RowanWORKS, the Salisbury-Rowan Economic Development Commission; Dakeita Vanderburg-Johnson of Healthy Cabarrus; and Rebecca Yarbrough of the Centralina Council of Governments.
Magryta, who has worked with children with asthma for 12 years, said he takes a “prevention-focused approach” in his practice.
Van Geons said the air quality not only affects health, but is also a factor site selection for major companies. Selecting a site like Rowan with high ozone levels might delay the process by eight to 18 months, he said, because of all the regulations new companies have to meet.
“My job is to find solutions for my community,” he said, identifying Taylor Clay Products’ new concrete roof tiles as an example. The tiles, which have a lifetime guarantee, act as a catalyst to absorb NOx, which is a precursor to air pollution.
Vanderburg-Johnson, who is completing her term as chair of the Cabarrus Sustainability Council, said air quality is a major concern for Cabarrus officials in trying to find a company to locate in the former Philip Morris plant. It was her involvement with the council, she said, that led to her being a part of Healthy Cabarrus, which is doing a community needs assessment.
“What you’ve done here is already a part of the data that we are crunching now for our presentation that will begin sometime in June,” she said.
Yarbrough said the Centralina Council of Governments helps to educate people on air quality issues, such as the impact of high ozone levels. The council also works to focus on methods of improving air quality, such as reducing ozone levels in a cost-effective manner.
“We’ve been saying for years that we really are all in it together when it comes to these environmental issues,” Yarbrough said.
Charles Davis, ozone chemist for the N.C. Division of Air Quality office in Raleigh, was among the guests at the presentation. “I think programs like this make a big difference,” he said. “The air quality’s getting better, but there are still problems ... There’s lots we can all do, and I think everybody’s more conscious of it.”
David Setzer, executive director of the Blanche & Julian Robertson Family Foundation, said before the presentation that he was eager to hear the results of the study, which he said is just one example of the Center’s efforts to increase public awareness of air quality issues.
“I hope that what she will tell us will be more positive than negative,” he said. “If you’ve ever run out of breath for any reason, it’s scary. It’s really scary.”
The Robertson Foundation is one of the contributors to the Center’s Campaign for Clean Air. Representing another contributor, Schneider Electric, at the presentation was Mark Seifel, general manager of Schneider Electric in Salisbury,
“This particular study showed that it’s not just Rowan County’s problem,” Seifel said. High ozone levels are a regional problem and need to be addressed collectively.
Also representing contributors at the presentation were Teresa VonCannon of Piedmont Natural Gas and Randy Welch of Duke Energy.
Government officials of at least four counties were also in attendance. Jim Burke, natural resources agent for the Gaston County Cooperative Extension office, said before the presentation that he was eager to hear the results and would be interested in helping with future studies of its kind and possibly helping to provide funding.
Salisbury Councilwoman Maggie Blackwell said the city has been trying to help protect residents by offering free bus trips on high-ozone days for the past few years. The council will soon be able to install sidewalks in a high-pedestrian area, which will help improve local air quality, she said, and the city is working to make Salisbury a more bike-friendly town.
“All of these factors can help create fewer car trips,” Blackwell said, “which, of course, is good for all of us. Salisbury is so fortunate to have the Center for the Environment right here in our community,” she added. “I’ve been attending its presentations for years and I always learn so much.”
Cabarrus County Manager Mike Downs said before the presentation that the results could be valuable to Cabarrus officials in such areas as land use planning and educating the public on air quality concerns.
Councilman Al Brown of the Concord City Council said the results would also be helpful to the city. “What this Center does as much as anything is help to create a lot of awareness,” he said. “Hopefully, the people will get as emotionally charged about air and water as they are about some other things in the political process ....Air and water are pretty vital to life, and I hope that we can all have a vested interest.”
Shelia Armstrong, the Center’s air quality outreach coordinator, was pleased with the regional participation both from the panel and from the attendees. “People came all the way from Raleigh, Gastonia and Charlotte,” she said. “That shows that everybody realizes we’re all in this together. I don’t think we can say too many times how important it is to make sure the general public understands and knows about our air quality study.”
The Center for the Environment at Catawba College was founded in 1996 to provide education and outreach centered on prevalent environmental challenges and to foster community-oriented sustainable solutions that can serve as a model for programs throughout the country. For more information, visit www.centerfortheenvironment.org or www.campaignforcleanair.org.