Hampshire County gets ‘F’ in air quality rating; climate change a factor

  • This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

  • Because of its polluted air, the northeast is sometimes called “the Tailpipe of America.” The American Lung Association this year gave Hampshire County an “F” for the number of high ozone days it had. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 9/19/2019 12:12:39 PM

NORTHAMPTON — In 2015, Hampshire County received a “C” rating for average days of dangerously high ozone levels from the American Lung Association in its annual “State of the Air” report — one of the best grades it’s ever been given.

Fast forward four years, and the organization’s most recent report has returned the county to the bottom of the list in Massachusetts — joining Barnstable, Bristol and neighboring Hampden counties with an “F” rating for too many days of high ozone levels.

Ozone is a toxic and colorless gas that naturally occurs in the Earth’s upper atmosphere where it helps shield the sun’s dangerous ultraviolet rays; however, when found near ground level, the gas is harmful to health. If inhaled by humans, it can irritate and damage the lungs. It is also linked to asthma, putting young children, the elderly, those with asthma and low-income communities at heightened risk.

Even though the county earned an A rating for 24-hour particle pollution, experts say there is a quiet actor behind the abysmal air quality ratings: Climate change.

“It works both ways,” said Richard Peltier, a University of Massachusetts Amherst associate professor of environmental health sciences, speaking about the impact of climate change on air quality. “We know some of the pollutants we put out into our environment are black and sooty-colored, they absorb more light,” thus heating the air. “The opposite angle is climate change itself can cause more pollutants to be emitted in our environment.”

Peltier’s explanation details a changing climate’s relationship with hazardous air quality. In Hampshire County, there was a yearly average of 3.8 days of high ozone levels between 2015 and 2017, according to the report.

“We don’t release ozone; it’s actually a mixture,” he said. “Its a result of chemistry that happens in the air and the end product is ozone.”

The “ingredients” for ozone originate with the burning of fossil fuels, such as coal or gasoline from smokestacks and car tailpipes. When combined with sunlight and heat, those chemicals mix to become ozone gas and other pollutants. This chemical reaction is happening at a faster rate in many places across the country due to a warming world and hotter days, including in Hampshire County where the gas, in turn, traps more heat in the atmosphere. But there are other factors that affect this process, Peltier said.

“That cooking process is dependent on the temperature and the relative humidity,” he said of the chemical reactions that create ozone gas.

Peltier used increasingly hot New England summers as an example of when people might use more electricity for air conditioners to stay cool. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a federal scientific agency, the Earth’s five hottest years on record happened in the last five years. Increasing global temperatures lead to greater energy consumption and thus higher levels of pollutants in the air, he said.

What results is particle matter such as black carbon, byproducts of incomplete combustion that float in the atmosphere. Trillions and trillions of particles end up absorbing more light and taking in more heat, resulting in a higher likelihood of ozone gas near ground level.

“If you have more heat being retained in black particles around us, it is going to heat up the air,” Peltier said. “We know that a chemical reaction of air pollution is dependent on the temperature.”

Some pollutants can reflect sunlight, he said, allowing clouds to form, which bar the sun’s energy from making its way down to the ground. But this doesn’t help the situation, he said.

“When you look at all the effects, things that protect us from heating or create more heat — it’s a net loss for the planet because we’re all going to warm,” Peltier said.

‘Tailpipe of the nation’

So if Hampshire County has such a favorable rating in particle pollution, then how does a warming climate affect ozone levels locally? If there is less particle matter in our air, wouldn’t that result in less ozone gas?

Not exactly, said Janice Nolen, national assistant vice president for policy for the American Lung Association and project director for the “State of the Air” report​​​​​​.

“You’re in the area where you get ozone blown in from other parts of the country,” she said. “New England is called ‘the tailpipe of the nation.’”

Higher levels of particle matter in the Midwest, combined with a generally warming climate, will create that ozone, which eventually makes its way to Hampshire County, adding to the ozone already created here due to higher temperatures.

Nolen explained that particle matter also is hazardous to health, saying, “It can literally kill people.”

“It shortens lives by months to years,” she continued. “Asthma attacks, difficulty breathing, heart attacks, strokes. It causes lung cancer and cognitive difficulty … It makes it difficult to breathe.

“Even a healthy adult is affected by the air we breathe,” Nolen said.

But there are ways to reduce the amount of ozone in our atmosphere, Nolen said, and it starts with making conscientious decisions. Cleaning up power plants and using cleaner vehicles like electric buses and cars help diminish the rate of ozone gas creation.

Recently, the EPA has been investigating whether the currently accepted level of ozone gas in the atmosphere adequately protects public health.

“We might need to put in stronger limits,” she said.

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.Michael Connors can be reached at mconnors@gazettenet.com.
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