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Report gives Hampshire County failing smog grade

AP FILE PHOTO
The smog-covered skyline of New Jersey is seen in the background as pedestrians enjoy a shady spot along the Hudson River in New York in July 2007. Western Massachusetts has received poor marks for ozone pollution in a report released last week by the American Lung Association.

AP FILE PHOTO The smog-covered skyline of New Jersey is seen in the background as pedestrians enjoy a shady spot along the Hudson River in New York in July 2007. Western Massachusetts has received poor marks for ozone pollution in a report released last week by the American Lung Association. Purchase photo reprints »

It turns out the pristine Pioneer Valley has something unpleasantly in common with Los Angeles and other far-off cities throughout the world — smog.

Western Massachusetts once again received poor marks for ozone pollution in a report released last week by the American Lung Association. Even if the region isn’t directly responsible for the “F” grade it received, as most experts agree, the pollution still has potentially dangerous repercussions.

“It’s a message to everyone that the air can be harmful and they need to pay attention so they know what they are breathing,” said Katie King, director of public policy for the American Lung Association in Massachusetts.

Most experts agree the Valley is susceptible to pollutants from vehicles and out-of-state industrial plants to the south and west that hitch a ride in air currents.

Just like weather, the pollutants enter the inland river valley and get trapped, especially on hot summer days. The air quality 30 to 40 miles to the south and north is much better.

“It’s very surprising Hampshire County scored as low as it did, but we’re victims of our own geography,” said Dr. Paul Salva, a pediatric pulmonologist in Springfield. “Part of this is a zip code problem.”

The annual report, now published for the 14th year, found that nearly two million Massachusetts residents live in counties with failing or near-failing air quality.

Four counties with air pollution monitors, including Hampshire, received an “F.” The grade reflects how many days the air reached unhealthy levels.

The grades are based on a color-coded scale that the Environmental Protection Agency uses to help the public understand daily air pollution forecasts. Each color provides a specific warning about the risk associated with air pollution in that range.

Hampshire County experienced 10 orange ozone days in 2012, which means the air was unhealthy for sensitive populations. The county experience no red and purple ozone days, which stands for unhealthy and very unhealthy, respectively. Despite the “F” grade, the ozone in the county has improved since 1996 when the report first came out. That year, the county experienced 24 orange zone days.

“Over time, the national and local air is getting much cleaner, but the “F” is still not good,” King said.

Twelve counties with air-pollution monitors, including Hampden, improved one letter grade to a “D” for ozone pollution. Franklin County is not included in the report because it does not have the air monitors used for testing ozone.

Ozone is created when sunlight reacts to emissions. It irritates the lungs and can cause coughing, wheezing and asthma attacks, among other problems.

Salva said the report is a critical reminder that smog can cause serious problems, especially for those with asthma and other breathing issues.

He said the burden of the condition is considerably greater for those with chronic conditions and typically leads to more hospitalization, more visits to the emergency room and more medication.

Ozone concerns

The American Lung Association advises people to track ozone status and avoid outdoor activity when it reaches dangerous levels. People especially susceptible are children under 18, elderly and those unhealthy or with lung diseases are advised to stay indoors. “Think of it as a snow day in the summer,” King said.

Even though much of the pollutants are the result of actions elsewhere, Salva said there are many steps people can take to control local pollution. He discourages people from using wood burning stoves and is a fan of legislation that forces bus drivers to shut their diesel engines off when idling in front of schools.

“A lot of pollution is within a 15- to 50-foot radius around us,” Salva said.

Other tips involving using public transportation when possible, striving to reduce electricity use and stay away from burning trash.

In addition to launching a public education campaign about air quality, the American Lung Association also uses the State of the Air report to endorse and make sure that federal laws like the Clean Air Act remain strong, are implemented and enforced, King said.

“Pollution doesn’t respect state boundaries ... this is a national problem,” she said.

To read the report, visit stateoftheair.org.

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