Pioneer Valley air quality OK, but could worsen with heat wave
NORTHAMPTON — Air quality has remained relatively good in the early stages of this week’s heat wave, though health experts caution that it could worsen as weather patterns shift and high temperatures continue to bear down on the Valley.
“With these increased temperatures comes the increased threat of hazardous levels of ozone pollution that can make people sick and even send people to the hospital,” said Jeff Seyler, president and CEO of the American Lung Association of the Northeast.
The state Department of Environmental Protection air quality forecast for Wednesday showed most areas of the state under the yellow-coded category of moderate, which translates into acceptable air quality levels that may pose a moderate health concern for only a small number of people sensitive to air pollutants. Most had been in the green category of “good” on Tuesday.
As of Tuesday afternoon no ozone or fine particle alerts had been issued. These warnings are triggered when air quality becomes unhealthy for sensitive groups, such as people with respiratory ailments. The National Weather Service did issue a heat advisory for eastern and central portions of Hampden and Hampshire counties Monday.
“Some increases in pollutant levels are expected, but only to a small degree since pollutant transport will remain weak,” according to the state DEP forecast.
Air quality worsens when heat and sunlight mix with hydrocarbons like gasoline and solvents as well as nitrogen oxide emissions to create increased levels of ozone and particle pollution. The latter can include soot, dust, dirt and smoke.
A variety of factors, such as wind and weather, can cause air quality to change from day to day. The summertime weather patters most often associated with air pollution here are those drawing up air up along the Northeast corridor from areas like Washington, New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia, according to the state DEP.
Wind direction also strongly influences ozone levels, which often worsen with southwesterly winds blowing from the Ohio Valley and Middle Atlantic states to Massachusetts. The process is known as regional transport and is responsible for a significant portion of the air pollution in Massachusetts, according to the state environmental agency, which monitors air quality from 29 sites in the commonwealth, including Amherst, Springfield and Ware.
DEP spokesman Joseph Ferson said one factor keeping air quality within acceptable limits earlier this week was the lack of southwesterly winds.
“The winds are light and out of the north,” Ferson said late Monday. That means, he noted, the air quality would likely be in the good to moderate range.
But that could change.
The American Lung Association issued an alert Tuesday for Massachusetts residents to be aware of the increased risk of ground-level ozone and to take precautions when levels are high, particularly those with lung disease or other conditions sensitive to air pollution.
“They should cut back and reschedule activities,” said Casey Harvell, director of public policy at the American Lung Association of the Northeast.
The organization has a free “State of the Air” smartphone application that monitors current ozone levels and particle pollution and issues notifications when either pollutant reaches unhealthy levels in a particular area. Users can enter their zip code or use a geolocater function to get air quality conditions as well as a next-day air quality forecast.
The American Lung Association recently issued its State of the Air 2013 report, which gave Hampshire County a failing smog grade and warned that pollution in the region has potentially dangerous repercussions.
More than 8.6 million people in the Northeast live in counties with dangerous levels of ozone or particle pollution, including Hampshire County, according to the association’s analysis.
In addition, the DEP provides up-to-date air quality information and next-day forecasts at MassAir Online. The site provides a wealth of data, including ozone and fine particle forecasts, a color-coded system indicating how clean or polluted the air is from monitoring sites across the state, and explanations about what causes good and bad air.
Dan Crowley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.