Rowan County bad zone for ozone

Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 15, 2009

By Scott Jenkins
When it comes to the air you breathe, there’s good news and bad news.
First the bad news: The American Lung Association recently ranked Rowan the 13th worst county in the nation for ozone pollution, and its report ranked the Charlotte region, which includes Rowan, the 8th worst metropolitan area.
Now the good news: It’s not all your fault, and you may hold the key to improving air quality in Rowan County and the region ó if it’s a car key.
The Center for the Environment at Catawba College hosted Dr. Viney Aneja, a professor and director of air quality research at N.C. State University, Thursday evening as part of the center’s Campaign for Clean Air initiative, funded with state and local grant money.
A noted air-quality researcher, Aneja told a large audience the earth’s “good ozone” ó the higher layer that blocks harmful ultraviolet rays from the sun ó is diminishing. Meanwhile, “bad ozone” ó a layer closer to the earth that helps form smog and acid rain, among other things ó is growing.
Dividing North Carolina into thirds, he said, reveals that each section has its own primary contributor to bad ozone.
Industrial pollutants from the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Ohio Valley have drifted into western North Carolina, turning Blue Ridge Mountains vistas gray. In the east, technology meant to manage farm waste from 10 million hogs has proved “simply inadequate,” he said.
In the Piedmont, automotive emissions are the main culprit. Although trees emit a large amount of volatile organic compounds, another contributor to ozone pollution, automobiles belch the most nitrogen oxide, along with volatile organics. And while not much can be done about the trees, people can control their cars and their use of them.
“That, at the end of the day, is all we can do,” he said. He suggests keeping cars tuned up and well-maintained; ensuring tires are properly inflated; carpooling or riding mass transit; and avoiding gasoline spills, which emit volatile organic compounds.
Aneja noted one aim of the federal government’s recent Cash for Clunkers program was to swap older cars with dirtier emissions for new vehicles with fewer harmful emissions. He credited the auto industry’s steady refinement of its product with helping to improve air quality.
“In the 1970s, we used to spew out (nitrogen oxide) like there was no tomorrow,” he said. “Today, we’re a lot better.”
Still, those emissions are a big reason for Rowan making the American Lung Association’s list of most ozone-polluted counties year after year. Rowan is downwind from Charlotte, and auto emissions there become ozone here.
And county officials have argued the rankings are unfair because they don’t include Rowan’s neighbors that lack air-quality monitors.
Even so, Aneja says there clearly is work to do.
“We’re making good progress improving our air quality, but it’s not there yet.” And getting there, he said, will take a larger effort than just carpooling between Salisbury and Charlotte on Interstate 85, especially since a large part of ozone pollution in this state drifts in from others.
“We can’t go it alone,” he said.
Center for the Environment Director John Wear noted the Campaign for Clean Air is meant to have an impact far beyond Rowan County.
“We need to change our behavior throughout this region, and we need to support the changes that need to be made,” he said.