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Better breathing around corner; Heat, fine particles and ozone factor into unhealthy air.

Byline: Kelly Glista

Warm weather, fun colors, pools, beaches and school vacation: All the wonders of summer will soon be memories.

But what about humidity, sweat, bright red faces, offices without air conditioning, and ground-level ozone?

That last element may not seem obvious to some, but as the summer heat winds down into September, sunburn will not be the only thing to cross off the list of hot-weather worries.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's New England Regional Office classified Aug. 3 as an unhealthy air quality day for New England. In Worcester, the air was better than expected, but some other parts of Massachusetts were not so lucky. And even locally there have been plenty of days when air quality was a concern for many.

What is meant by "unhealthy" air?

Heightened levels of ozone, as well as above-normal levels of fine particles and high air temperatures

all contributed to the 12 poor air quality days in Massachusetts this summer. In New England, ozone monitors have recorded 16 such days so far this year.

Ozone at ground level - the main ingredient of smog - is considered unhealthy when it reaches above 0.08 parts per million during an eight-hour period.

Higher levels of ozone can cause serious breathing problems, aggravate existing problems such as asthma, and increase susceptibility to respiratory infection. During high ozone days, it can be dangerous for people with such problems to be involved in strenuous outside activity.

According to the EPA, ozone occurs naturally in the stratosphere, a level of atmosphere 9 to 18 miles above the Earth, to protect the planet from the sun's ultraviolet radiation and to maintain the planet's temperature.

At ground level, ozone is formed when gases called nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds react in the presence of heat and sunlight, according to the EPA. Motor vehicles, power plants and other sources of combustion emit nitrogen oxides. Motor vehicles, chemical plants, refineries, factories, and other industrial sources emit VOCs.

Kristen Woulfe, regional manager for marketing and communications at the American Lung Association of Massachusetts, said this summer has been about average when it comes to respiratory issues.

"We have not been in the worst air quality," she said, adding that there were days that air quality was a concern, especially for those with lung problems.

The EPA's daily Air Quality Index measures from zero to 500. The index is divided into six categories ranging from good to hazardous, depending on the index number. Zero to 50 is considered good; 51 to 100 moderate, 101 to 150 unhealthy for sensitive groups; 151 to 200 unhealthy; 201 to 300 very unhealthy; and 301 to 500 hazardous. According to the EPA Web site, any number below 100 is considered satisfactory air quality.Anne Arnold, manager of Air Quality Planning at the EPA's New England office, said temperature and wind direction are also big factors on days in which the air quality is considered unhealthy. At noon yesterday, the air quality number for Worcester was 19, which is very good. The cooler weather and the morning rain seemed to have brought the air quality up.

The previous Friday, when air quality was predicted to be in the dangerous zone, Worcester's quality number came in at 69. That put it in the moderate category for air pollutants. The rest of Massachusetts had air quality numbers ranging from 30 on Martha's Vineyard to 90 in Haverhill and Newbury. That was the last day that any Massachusetts ozone monitors reached above 0.08 parts per million.

According to the EPA, poor air quality can be a problem year-round, but in New England it is most prevalent in the summer months, Ms. Arnold said.

Fortunately, the number of unhealthy air days has been decreasing across New England for more than two decades. Last year's 16 poor air quality days in New England are far fewer that the 90 days of unhealthy air in 1983. The lowest number of the region's poor air days in recent years was 13 in 2003.

In Massachusetts, the number of poor air quality days has dropped from 62 in 1983, to 11 last year.

So far this summer, six out of the 12 high ozone level days recorded in Massachusetts have included Worcester in the affected area.

The EPA asks that, on unhealthy air quality days, people limit the use of gasoline-powered machines such as lawn mowers, use public transportation or carpool whenever possible, and refuel vehicles at night so the sun cannot heat fuel vapors into ozone.

Robert W. Varney, regional administrator of the EPA's New England office, said smog levels can be reduced even more if people work at it.

"Everybody can help reduce smog-forming emissions by driving less, by using public transportation, and by setting air conditioner thermostats a few degrees higher," he said.

When air conditions are unhealthy, people with respiratory or pulmonary problems, as well as the elderly and small children, should avoid any strenuous outdoor activity.

The EPA includes daily listings of the Air Quality Index on its Web site, www.epa.gov, so that the public can monitor the air quality and know when to limit the activities that could cause problems.

ART: CHART

PHOTOG: T&G Staff/STACEY ARSENAULT

CUTLINE: Better breathing in Massachusetts
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Title Annotation:LOCAL NEWS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Aug 11, 2007
Words:878
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