Metro air quality improving, but ozone days still a health risk

ATLANTA — According to the American Lung Association, Metro Atlanta is no longer one of the nation’s top 25 most polluted cities, but still has an “F” air quality rating.

This is a real concern for DeKalb County resident Caroline Martin and her mother, Lisa Rayner.

“Even (something) as simple as walking down the street from my car, and breathing in, pollution, it’s the tightening of my chest, it’s like, ‘OK hold on let me try to catch my breath, grab my inhaler,’” Martin explained.

Rayner said she took Martin to the hospital several times as a child because of her severe asthma.

“All the traffic and all the cars and emissions. It’s just a hotbed for asthma,” Rayner said.

But the pollution is dangerous, even if you have healthy lungs.

“It’s not limited to the elderly, the sick, the young alone,” explained Dr. Bryce Harley, a pulmonary physician with Piedmont Atlanta. “All individuals who breathe these are pollutants and on a regular basis, and high quality or some type of risk for long term health problems.”

Hartley said we breathe in small pollution particles called particulate matter. The toxins are so small they enter our bloodstream and can damage our cardiovascular system.

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“People understand air pollution is probably bad for your lungs,” Hartley said, “But if you look at other disease states like strokes, heart attacks, heart arrhythmias, lung cancer, all of these have an association and link to air pollution as well.”

Professor Sally Ng with Georgia Tech’s School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering said toxic ozone is created when chemicals from cars, power plants and even paint mix with hot air and sunlight.

“Ozone is not admitted directly from any sources. Ozone is actually formed from a series of complex chemical reactions in the atmosphere,” Ng said. “It’s almost like a silent killer that you don’t think of it as super dangerous.”

While car emissions and pollutants decline, climate change means our planet is experiencing more hot days. 2020 was earth’s second hottest year.

Here in Atlanta, we’ve broken 63 of our daily high-temperature records in the last five years. Ng said hotter days mean more opportunities to create harmful ozone gas.

“Ozone is very sensitive to temperature,” Ng said. “When the temperature is higher, with warmer temperature also is more likely to be formed and then we will see more high pollution or high ozone days.”

Now, Rayner works with the group Mothers and Others for Clean Air, hoping to reduce the impact of pollution and climate change here in the southeast. She and Caroline Martin said education is the first step.

“It’s sad that people have to adjust their lives every day for it, and you never know when, when that one time it’s going to affect you, to the point where you could lose your life,” Rayner said.