Wearable Artwork Raises Awareness about Air Quality

The air we breathe is not always good for us. Air pollution has been linked to a number of health concerns, from asthma to heart disease, and even cancer. To raise awareness about this issue, artist Dominque Paul has created a dress that changes colors to indicate how safe the air we breathe actually is. It’s called Air Quality Interactive Wearable.

With the exception of smog and wildfire smoke, air pollution is not something we can always see with the naked eye. To make it visible, Ms. Paul uses an Air Beam, a portable device that measures the amount of small particles (PM 2.5) in the air. These are particles that are less than 2.5 microns or 0.0001 inches in diameter. Using the Air Beam’s calculation, a color from the EPA’s Air Quality Index is assigned to the dress. These colors range from green for good air quality to yellow, orange, red, and purple, which indicate increasing levels of pollution.

Ms. Paul created this wearable art piece as part of a residency program with IDEAS xLab, a non-profit organization that uses art to raise awareness about public health. Watch the video below of her “Air Walk” in the South Bronx section of New York City.

Air Quality Concerns in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Straddling the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, Great Smoky Mountains National Park protects 800 square miles of the southern Appalachian Mountains. It is the largest federally protected upland landmass east of the Mississippi River.  Air pollution, however, does not recognize these human-drawn borders. While traveling in the Smokies recently, I learned more about the air quality issues facing this country’s most visited national park.

According to the NPS, most of the air pollution impacting the park originates outside its boundaries. Emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides from power plants, factories, and vehicles are the main sources. Carried by wind to the southern Appalachians, the height of the mountains and the prevailing weather patterns of the region tend to trap the pollution in and around the park.

Originally named for its naturally occurring smoke-like blue haze, the park in recent years has been shrouded by unnatural white smog. Produced by tiny sulfate particles – released into the air by the burning of fossil fuels – the smog scatters light and reduces visibility. It has degraded views from the park’s scenic mountain overlooks and dulled its signature blue haze. Since 1948, according the NPS, human-made pollution has decreased average visibility in the region by 40% in winter and 80% in summer.

Ground level ozone, formed when nitrogen oxides react with heat and U.V. light, is known to have negative impacts on human health.  In the Smokies, it is also injuring trees and plants. Damaging leaves, it reduces photosynthesis and limits a plant’s ability to produce and store food.  As a result, they are more susceptible to disease, insects, and extreme weather events.

Acid rain is another problem for the park that is rooted in air pollution. It develops when sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides react with water and oxygen in the atmosphere to form solutions of sulfuric acid and nitric acid. This type of precipitation alters the chemistry of forest soils and streams. It jeopardizes the health of entire ecosystems, as a large array of species – from fish to trees – cannot adapt to the more acidic conditions. The average pH of rainfall in the Smokies, according to the NPS, is 4.5. That is 5–10 times more acidic than the pH range of normal rainfall.

While air quality issues in the park – like much of the rest of the country – have improved in recent years, it still remains a serious problem. Addressing the matter, the NPS says: “The Park Service is working with state regulatory agencies, the Environmental Protection Agency, and industrial and utility interests to develop a comprehensive plan to prevent future damage through such measures as offset programs, the use of improved technology, and determination of emission caps and government standards for various pollutants. To remedy air pollution problems at the park, additional reductions of nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide are necessary.”

State of the Air: 2014

Are you concerned about the quality of the air you breathe?  Air pollution, a by-product of our modern age, is an ongoing problem in many parts of the United States.

According to the American Lung Association’s annual State of the Air Report, 147.6 million people – 47% of the nation – live in counties with unhealthy levels of particle and ozone pollution. That is an increase of 16 million from last year. One of the worst polluted cities is Los Angeles, CA, where the air is considered unhealthy 120 days of the year, on average. For a list of the most polluted as well as the cleanest cities, click here.

Particle pollution comes from a variety of sources, but chief among them are industrial emissions and vehicle exhaust.  When these emissions react with the U.V. light of the sun, they form ground level ozone. Both of these pollutants are known to have serious negative impacts on human health.  They especially affect individuals suffering from respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.

While air pollution continues to be a serious challenge in this country, the report also notes the fact that our air – overall – is cleaner now than it has been in previous decades. This is largely due to the regulations put in place by the Clean Air Act.

To check on the quality of the air where you live, click here.

Smoky Haze Fills the Air in NYC

The smell of smoke filled the air in New York City Monday morning.  Its source was a 1,600-acre brush fire in Wharton State Forest, NJ – about 90 miles away.

Burning since late Sunday, the smoke was trapped near the ground by a local temperature inversion. This is a weather phenomenon where the temperature in the atmosphere increases with height instead of decreasing.  Essentially, the inversion layer acted like a lid and caused the smoke to spread out horizontally rather than vertically.  A low level wind from the southeast then carried the smoke toward the city.

The smoky haze prompted the EPA to issue an air quality alert for the NYC area. With a spike in the pollutant known as “fine particulate matter”, this was the first time this year that the city’s air quality dropped below “moderate” on the agency’s AQI scale.

Smoky haze fills the air in NYC.  Image Credit: WPIX.

Smoky haze fills the air in NYC.  Image Credit: PIX11.

WHO: Air Pollution Causes Cancer

Air pollution has long been linked to a number of health problems, including respiratory and heart diseases.  Now, it has been shown to cause cancer.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer, a division of the World Health Organization, released a report on Thursday which concludes prolonged exposure to air pollution and particulate matter can cause lung cancer and increase the risk of bladder cancer.  Unlike some other environmental carcinogens, air pollution is nearly impossible to avoid, as we all need to breathe. Caused by vehicle exhaust, power generation, industrial emissions, and residential heating, its sources are ubiquitous.

While the report did not quantify risk by country, some places are more polluted than others. Here in the United States, the Clean Air Act has helped improve air quality in recent years. Nonetheless, pollution continues to cause health problems for many people across the country.

Globally, according to the IARC, air pollution contributed to 3.2 million pre-mature deaths in 2010 alone.  More than 200,000 of those were from lung cancer.

Air Quality Improvements in NYC

New Yorkers can breathe easy.  The city’s air quality is the cleanest it has been in fifty years.

While speaking at a Climate Week NYC event yesterday, Mayor Bloomberg announced that the city’s sulfur dioxide levels have decreased by 69% since 2008 and soot pollution has dropped 23% since 2007. This data is based on the results of a New York City Community Air Survey, which monitored air quality at one hundred locations across the five boroughs.

This impressive reduction is largely attributed to the Clean Heat Program, part of the larger PlaNYC initiative for an environmentally sound city.  The program encourages building owners to phase out the use of heavy heating oils that pollute the air.  Over the past three years, according to the mayor’s office, approximately 2,700 buildings have converted to cleaner fuels.  Following regulations established in 2011, the use of dirty heating oils in NYC will be illegal by 2030.

Since air pollution is known to aggravate cardiovascular and lung diseases, public health officials estimate that the cleaner air is preventing 800 deaths and more than 2,000 emergency room visits each year.

President Obama’s Climate Change Plan

The Obama Administration is tackling climate change.  In a speech delivered at Georgetown University yesterday – outdoors in sweltering 90°F heat – the President outlined his plan to combat this pressing issue.

The three key points of his strategy are: cutting carbon pollution in America, preparing the U.S. for the impacts of climate change, and leading international efforts to cut global emissions.  While highlighting a number of measures in each category, one of the most significant aspects of this plan is to cut carbon dioxide emissions from both new and existing power plants. Coal-fired power plants are responsible for one-third of this country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Emphasizing the need to act quickly, these measures will be put in place by executive order and not Congress. The President stated, “Americans across the country are already paying the price of inaction” and he would not tolerate politicized attempts to cast doubt on the scientific consensus of climate change.  Putting it bluntly, he said, “We don’t have time for a meeting of the flat earth society.”

State of the Air 2013

Are you concerned about the quality of the air you breathe?  Air pollution, a by-product of our industrial age, is an ongoing problem in many parts of the United States.

According to the American Lung Association’s annual State of the Air Report, released yesterday, 42% of Americans live in counties with unhealthy levels of particle and ozone pollution. Particle pollution comes from a variety of sources, but chief among them are industrial emissions and vehicle exhaust.  When these emissions react with the U.V. light of the sun, they form ground level ozone. In addition to contributing to climate change, both of these pollutants are known to have serious negative impacts on human health.  They especially affect individuals suffering from respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.

In spite of these current pollution challenges, the report also highlights the success of the Clean Air Act and the fact that our nation’s air, overall, is cleaner now than it has been in the past.

Click here to see where your county’s air quality ranks.

Weather and Health: Air Quality

An air quality alert is in effect for the New York City area today.  This means our local outdoor air contains elevated levels of pollutants.

Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA is responsible for monitoring air pollution across the United States.  Calculated on the Air Quality Index (AQI), a standardized indicator, the agency’s daily reports focus on the health effects people may suffer as a result of breathing polluted air. Its scale runs from 0-500 with values above 100 considered to be unhealthy.  Increasing AQI values correlate to higher levels of pollution and an escalating risk to public health.

The five major air pollutants measured on the AQI are, ground level ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide. These pollutants often build to unsafe concentrations when local weather patterns allow air to become stagnant from a lack of wind.

The AQI value in New York City today is 105, which references a spike in ground level ozone.  This degree of pollution will mainly impact people with pre-existing respiratory conditions.

Chart Credit: NOAA