The air that we breathe
The sky over the Truckee Meadows can be clear and crisp as glass or as murky and brown as a pall. With Earth Day on the horizon, a trip to the air-quality enforcers yields some of the reasons for the disparity and what we can do about it
sky days, it seems a good time to talk about the air we breathe.
The bad news, according to Louise Martin, program director for the American Lung Association of Nevada, is that Nevada has one of the nation’s highest per-capita rates of asthma. While it’s hard to sort out exactly to what extent that’s because of air pollution and how much is due to other factors, like Nevada’s lenient smoking laws, Martin says she sees a direct correlation: As air quality decreases, asthma rates increase.The good news is, in the Truckee Meadows, it’s not all bad news.
The Reno 3 Site is a small, paved lot on State Street, near East Second Street and Wells Avenue. It has an unassuming, new-looking beige mobile-home-like structure surrounded by a black industrial fence. There’s weather-monitoring equipment on the roof.
“Meteorology is pretty important with air quality,” Sikorski says, “so you know where [the pollution is] coming from [and] where it’s going, and you can also use the data … to try to predict what your concentrations are going to be for air-quality forecasting.”
A large, hooked glass tube passes through the building’s wall to bring air from outside through computerized equipment on tables. The computers aren’t too old, Sikorski says (though they may be updated soon), but they’ve got the clunky, rectangular design of computers from back in the days when only scientists used them.
“These are the particulate-matter samplers on the roof,” Sikorski says, gesturing to what look like wide metal chimneys. “This one here’s a PM10.” That means it measures for particulates 10 microns in size and under. To put a micron into context, 1,000 microns is one millimeter. So 10 microns sounds like just about nothing, but the Department of Air Quality also measures for the even-less-significant-sounding PM 2.5 (you guessed it—particles that are 2.5 microns in size), which, says Sikorski, is just the right size to get lodged in the lungs and potentially cause respiratory problems.
A vacuum motor draws air through a filter and into the particulate-matter samplers. Deposits accumulate on the filter, and the computers take a reading and send the data a few blocks down the road to the Department of Air Quality office.
The concentration of particulates is expressed in micrograms per cubic meter. On a good day in Reno, the reading is about 40-50 micrograms, an average day might be 60-70, and the worst day Sikorski has seen in the year and a half since he moved from Southern California was 173, violating the national standard of 150. That was Jan. 14, when snowstorms called for heavy sanding, which led to extra dust in the air. (A bad day in Los Angeles, by comparison, might register over 200.)
Taking a reading
Washoe County’s air quality is pretty good in comparison to that of other, similar-sized urban areas, says Department of Air Quality Director Andy Goodrich. He’s friendly over the phone and quite willing to talk air-quality details.
“We’re doing very well, actually,” he answers, “and looking at the trends of air quality for the last two or three decades, we’ve had a pretty steady improvement.”
The department, a division of the Washoe County Health Department, measures for 64 compounds, but three in particular comprise Reno’s main threats: carbon monoxide, ozone and dust (dust being what the PM10 and PM2.5 designations refer to).
Carbon monoxide is emitted when fuels that contain carbon are burned. The most common culprit is gasoline, followed by wood.
“We have not violated the federal health standard for carbon monoxide for about 14 years now,” Goodrich says. He cites Environmental Protection Agency-mandated improvements on auto emissions and the county’s stringent wood-burning restrictions as two approaches that have helped keep CO levels in compliance.
The next notable pollutant, ozone, is the stuff you can see nestling up against Mount Rose on a bad day. “When people talk about smog,” Goodrich says, “they’re really talking about ozone.”
Ozone is formed in the atmosphere when certain vapors—from substances like gasoline and paints—react chemically to sunlight. Therefore, ozone levels are higher in summertime when there’s more sunlight.
Ozone corrodes things, especially things made of rubber, like windshield wipers and tires, and things made of living tissue, like lungs and eyes.
If the fact that ozone is hazardous seems at odds with the fact that the oft-reported dissipation of the ozone layer is also hazardous, refer to the first rule of real estate, which is also the first rule of ozone safety: location, location, location. Goodrich explains, “The thing about ozone—this is why people get confused—ozone is bad down by the ground in our breathing space. Ozone is good way up in the stratosphere.” That’s because the ozone in the stratosphere is out of breathing range and blocks UV radiation.
The county has violated the federal standard for ozone in the past but is currently in compliance.
Common ozone-causers like gasoline and paints aren’t likely to go away soon, so the DAQ attempts to control ozone sources by requiring vapor recovery devices on gas pumps and keeping a watch on emissions from factories and industrial sources.
The third major air-quality hazard, particulate matter (a.k.a. dust), is most prevalent in winter. One reason is that sand is spread on icy roads in the colder months.
Winter is also dustier because lower temperature inversions (during which the temperature is cooler near the ground and warmer high up) confine whatever is floating around in the air to a smaller space. “Things just kind of settle in here,” Goodrich says.
Particulate matter can also come from automobile exhaust, metals from brake pads, fugitive dust from construction sites, wildfires and wood-burning heaters. When the particulate matter count is too high, the DAQ implements a wood-heater ban.
The level of particulate matter in the air is currently in violation of EPA standards.
Recent successes, current limitations, future dilemmas
The “standards” the Department of Air Quality adheres to are the National Ambient Air Quality Standards, dictated by the Clean Air Act (most recently amended in 1990), which requires the EPA to set national air-pollution guidelines.
The EPA reassesses the standards every five years. They aren’t necessarily made more stringent after each five-year period, but it’s likely they’ll be tightened in 2006.
The DAQ has the authority to regulate, to some extent, what goes into the county’s air. The department requires an operating permit from businesses that compromise air quality; right now, there are more than 1,200 permitted polluters. Most of them are relatively small—dry-cleaners and small gas stations, for example—and pay as little as $65 annually. Larger polluters pay up to $20,000 a year.
Other ways the department can limit air pollution include setting guidelines for residential wood-burning and weighing in on state smog-check laws.
In addition to legislation to encourage cleaner air, Goodrich attributes some successes to technology. “Technology in motor vehicles,” he says, “has come a long way, and that really has made a huge impact on the improvement of air quality. The removal of lead out of gasoline, all the technology that’s actually gone on the edges and things like that.”
However, there are some things the department doesn’t have control over. Kaitlin Backlund, political director for the Nevada Conservation League, says the Department of Air Quality does a good job managing the air quality, given there are some pollutants that it can’t prevent from entering the air. For example, she says, “They don’t have complete influence on how much the ground is getting bulldozed for new development in the area. … When you disrupt the ground in Nevada, and you have the windy conditions that we have in Reno, you’re going to have a problem with particulate matter.”
Speaking of forces too big for the department to control, Goodrich sees a seemingly unavoidable problem on the near horizon: “We’re driving a whole lot more. The uphill battle we’ve faced is that even though technology is improving, we seem as Americans to keep driving more. And more and more.”
That trend doesn’t look like it’ll be reversed in the foreseeable future.
“My hat goes off to anybody who’s walking, riding their bike or taking public transportation,” Backlund says, “because certainly we have to get out of our automobiles to keep our air clean.”
But much as she’d like to see people driving less, or at least driving vehicles with cleaner emissions, she acknowledges the road to cleaner air probably won’t be paved with altruism.
“There’s this enormous convenience that goes with owning a personal vehicle,” Backlund says. “I think, unfortunately, the way our society works is that very few people are driving hybrids, for instance, because the emissions are lower. People are driving hybrids because they don’t have to fill up their gas tank as often and they’re not having to spend as much money on gas, and I’d suggest that public transportation might go the same direction. When it becomes inconvenient to drive your car in and around Reno, that will more than likely drive a more sophisticated mass-transit system.”
She suggests that a light rail between Carson City, Carson Valley and Reno would turn a lot of drivers into riders, thereby improving air quality, but she doesn’t imagine there’ll be enough of a demand for such a system until it’s simply too inconvenient to make the trip by car. “Unfortunately,” she says, it seems sometimes you have to get to a point where things are worse before they can get better.”
Keeping the air fresh and sweet
So, the Department of Air Quality, along with state and federal agencies, has been legislating air-quality standards. That’s helped reduce air pollution.
But, as Backlund points out, “It’s obvious to anybody who lives in Reno that not every single day is a clean-air day. There are certainly times when you can’t see downtown from the surrounding foothills.”
By all predictions, Reno’s population will continue to increase, and the local transportation infrastructure will demand that most people continue to drive automobiles. That suggests an increasing threat to clear skies.
If the air’s going to be kept clean, who’s going to do it?
The future of our air quality is going to depend largely on choices made by individuals, Goodrich suggests, because corporations are already under as much control as they’re likely to be under.
“Large industrial sources are very well-regulated,” he says. “Quite honestly, it’s easier to apply technology when you have one big source.” Essentially, the bigger the air polluter you are, the more closely you’re monitored and the more tightly you’re controlled.
We’re all air polluters to some extent, but, Goodrich says, “With the individual, there’s a lot of freedom of choice. For example, ‘Do I buy a Hummer vs. a hybrid [Toyota] Prius?’ ‘Do I buy a wood-burning stove or do I buy a gas one?'”
“And those,” he continues, “at least in our area, have a huge impact on the community. A lot of it is personal choice.”
Susie Kapahee, the DAQ’s effervescent, mom-like public information officer, agrees that individuals must take action. She encourages people to pursue some of the tried-and-true approaches to clean air, like carpooling and purchasing fuel-efficient homes, cars and lawnmowers. She also mentions some less usual options, like considering biodiesel fuel, which is derived from vegetable oil.
Backlund agrees that individuals can play a significant role. In addition to commending those who walk or bike to work, she encourages taking a big-picture approach and keeping in mind the politics behind clean air.
“I think it’s important that we not see any rollbacks on that Clean Air Act,” she says. She also advises people to help affect clean-air standards by writing to Congress members. “You don’t have to necessarily wait until that issue is ripe in Congress … It’s helpful for them to get a steady drumbeat of letters of concern from their constituents.”
But even if we all contact our senators and buy products that promote clean air, we still face certain realities. We live in an auto-based world with a growing population, and we’ll continue to sand roads and paint houses and use fossil fuels until there are new alternatives that are feasible on a large scale.
Meanwhile, is it really possible to tread lightly? That’s up for debate, but considering the alternative makes putting in the effort sound like a damn fine idea.