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The ozone season begins Monday as state and local environmental agencies renew their daily air quality forecasts for ozone in metropolitan areas across North Carolina. Air quality has been good so far this year due to cool, wet weather but that could change quickly when the temperatures warm.
“Air quality forecasts help inform people about how clean or polluted the outdoor air is and whether health effects might be a concern,” said Sheila Holman, director of the N.C. Division of Air Quality (DAQ). “Using the forecasts, people can better plan their activities to help protect their health and reduce emissions.”
The daily air quality forecasts focus on the pollutant likely to reach the highest level on a given day, which could be ozone or particle pollution. The color-coded forecasts show whether air quality is likely to be good (green), moderate (yellow), unhealthy for sensitive groups (orange), or unhealthy (red).
State and local air quality programs issue air quality forecasts for ozone from April through October in the Asheville, Charlotte, Fayetteville, Hickory, Triad, Triangle and Rocky Mount metropolitan areas. Forecasts are issued for particle pollution year-round for all North Carolina’s metropolitan areas.
Meteorologists issue the air quality forecasts at 3 p.m. every day for the following day. On Code Orange and Red days, the forecasts also suggest things people can do to protect their health and reduce air pollution, such as driving less.
Ozone is North Carolina's most widespread air quality problem, particularly during the warmer months. High ozone levels generally occur on hot sunny days with little wind, when pollutants such as nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons react in the air. High levels of fine particles can occur throughout the year, particularly during episodes of stagnant air and wildfires.
Ozone, a highly reactive form of oxygen, can be unhealthy to breathe -- particularly for children, people with respiratory problems or heart disease, and even healthy adults who work or exercise outdoors. Exposure to high ozone levels may cause previously healthy individuals to develop asthma over time. Ozone also causes millions of dollars in tree and crop damage each year in the U.S. More than half of North Carolina’s residents live in counties where ozone levels exceed the standard at times.
Particle pollution, which consists of very small particles and liquid droplets in the air, can be harmful to breathe and contributes to haze and other air quality problems. Fine particles can penetrate deeply into the lungs and absorb into the bloodstream, causing or aggravating heart and lung diseases. Persons most susceptible to particle pollution include those with heart and respiratory conditions, the elderly and young children.
Currently all of North Carolina meets federal particle standards, but levels have exceeded the annual standard in several Piedmont counties in the past. Unlike ozone, particle levels can be high during any season or at any time of the day. Sensitive groups should take special care to limit their physical activity during periods of high particle pollution.
The DAQ developed its air quality forecasting system to help citizens better protect their health and to comply with clean air standards. In the Triad, forecasts are issued by the Forsyth County Environmental Affairs Department.
Citizens can obtain air quality information and forecasts by visiting the DAQ’s website at http://www.ncair.org or calling 1-888-RU4NCAIR (1-888-784-6224). People also can download a free smart phone by searching for “EPA AIRNow.”
North Carolina has taken steps to reduce levels of ozone, fine particles and other air pollutants. The General Assembly enacted the Clean Smokestacks Act in 2002, which required power plants to reduce their ozone, particle and haze-forming emissions by three-fourths. Those emissions reductions have helped improve air quality in the state in recent years.