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Despite smoke, air in Southwest Ohio overall cleaner than 20 years ago

 Smoke from Canadian wildfires obscures visibility at the I-70 and I-75 interchange  on June 28 and prompts air quality advisories in the Midwest.
Smoke from Canadian wildfires obscures visibility at the I-70 and I-75 interchange and prompts air quality advisories in the Midwest.

The air quality in Southwest Ohio recently was some of the worst we have seen in recent memory.

Brian Huxtable is an air pollution control specialist with the Regional Air Pollution Control Agency in Dayton. He tells us more about what’s going on, and has some surprisingly good news about the overall quality of our air.

Brian Huxtable: Most of the last month has been related to the Canadian wildfires that have drifted down from Canada. Traditionally we do have high ozone days throughout the summer. But this year is a little unique with the wildfire smoke, because now we're actually seeing high PM 2.5, or fine particulate matter days in the region. And it'll probably continue until these fires are controlled or extinguished.

Mike Frazier: You mentioned two different types of pollution, ozone and something called PM 2.5. What exactly does that mean?

Brian Huxtable: So that's what we refer to as fine particulate matter. So PM is particulate matter, and 2.5 is the size of the particles. So 2.5 microns in size. A PM 2.5 particle is just a fraction of the width of a human hair. So we're talking about very fine particles that when people breathe this in the air down in their lungs, the natural defense mechanisms in the body don't filter out those small particles, which can penetrate down into the lungs and cause health problems.

Mike Frazier: So it's actually little specks floating in the air that we breathe into our lungs.

Brian Huxtable: Yes. And that's what we see right now. We've seen very high levels with this smoke in the atmosphere. So that's why there's recommendations to reduce physical activity. So they don't want people breathing heavily, deep breathing, where you're bringing those deep in your lungs. So that's where the concern lies.

Mike Frazier: And how does that differ from ozone pollution?

Brian Huxtable: Ozone is different in a sense that it's not directly admitted into the atmosphere. So ozone forms when you have nitrogen oxide compounds with volatile organic compounds, and when those two pollutants mix in the atmosphere in the presence of sunlight and heat, it forms ground level ozone. So that's why ozone is traditionally just a summertime pollutant.

Mike Frazier: Does the smoke that we're experiencing have anything to do with the air flow in the atmosphere pushing the smoke from Canada into our area?

Brian Huxtable: Yes. So it's definitely weather related. But it doesn't mean that that smoke is always at the ground level. So you have a couple of different things. One, where is the smoke at and in relation to where you live. And then the second is, is it down at ground level? So weather plays a very large factor in that.

Mike Frazier: Now, the kind of pollution that we're experiencing now with the wildfires, how does that differ from conventional pollution that's generated by the burning of fossil fuels and other sources?

Brian Huxtable: They're different in nature. For a car exhaust, it would be kind of similar. You're going to have nitrogen oxide emissions or VOC — volatile organic compound emissions from a car. But it kind of depends on what actually is burning that might dictate what's actually in the fire. So they're different, but I'm sure there are some compounds that are the same.

Mike Frazier: So overall, how is the air quality in Southwest Ohio? What have the trends shown over the past decade or two?

Brian Huxtable: Improvements. If you were to dial back or go back 20, 25 years, we've seen significant improvements in air quality. We've seen a lot of emission reductions from power plants, from cleaner cars, which has driven emissions down. Therefore, we have better air quality.

Mike Frazier: Playing devil's advocate here, if the air is cleaner, then does that mean that mission accomplished and we should relax our standards?

Brian Huxtable: Not necessarily. The EPA, they're required to reevaluate the standards that they set. They're health based standards. So what they do over time is, they go back and look at new health studies and try to determine if the current standards in the current measured levels of air quality are still protective of public health. So they look at the current standards, and if they see that there's still a need for improvement, they will revise the standard. And when that happens, usually that triggers a set of regulations to control emissions from some sector of the economy, whether it's from cars, power plants, manufacturing facilities, that sort of thing. So it's kind of a cyclical process.

Mike Frazier: It's also a good reminder for folks — how can the average person help reduce air pollution?

Brian Huxtable: So when we issue air quality alerts for ozone, we would encourage people to not cut their grass on those days. You can maybe switch to an electric mower or electric lawn equipment. Avoid filling up gas tanks in the morning. If you have any landscape waste or garden waste, don't burn it. So those are some simple things that people can do to help reduce pollution, especially when there's their air quality advisories out.

A chance meeting with a volunteer in a college computer lab in 1987 brought Mike to WYSO. He started filling in for various music shows, and performed various production, news, and on-air activities during the late 1980s and 90s, spinning vinyl and cutting tape before the digital evolution.