LAWRENCEVILLE - Quick! Who's had more unhealthy air this year: Athens or Atlanta?
If you chose Athens, you are correct.
On Monday and Tuesday the amount of ground-level ozone hovering above the college town east of Gwinnett County exceeded federal air quality standards.
Metro Atlanta, of which Gwinnett is a part, has not recorded any bad-air days yet, although it's only a matter of time and temperature, environmental officials say.
That's because as the mercury rises, pollutants from the region's sea of automobiles as well as from a host of other sources, including power plants and lawn mowers, will cook in the summer sun and form ground-level ozone - a chief component of smog.
The summer smog season starts Monday, and cooler, damper weather could mean lower ozone levels, while humid, steamy days could cause ozone levels to jump, air experts say.
To help prevent that, and to help the region comply with the federal Clean Air Act, which it now violates, the state has taken many steps to curb air pollution, said state Environmental Protection Division spokeswoman Cherrise Boone.
Besides an outdoor burn ban during summer months, it also requires auto emissions testing in Gwinnett and 12 other metro counties, and it mandates that gas stations sell a special blend of low-sulfur fuel that reduces tailpipe pollutants.
Power plants and other industrial facilities also have to install technology that clean their emissions, Boone said.
The state has until 2008 to reduce metro Atlanta's ozone levels or the region could lose federal funds used to pay for road projects and face other sanctions. The deadline however, could be pushed back to 2010 at the state's request, according to environmental officials.
To help combat air pollution, environmental officials urge commuters to take mass transit, carpool or work from home when possible.
"In metro Atlanta cars and trucks are the largest source of ozone pollution," said Michael Halicki, spokesman for the Clean Air Campaign. "They contribute 52 percent of the problem."
The Clean Air Campaign, which seeks to educate citizens about the region's air quality challenges, even offers cash incentives. Information is available online at www.cleanaircampaign.com.
Is there a chance the Athens area could seize metro Atlanta's bad-air mantle? Definitely not, if the past is any indication.
After all, last year the Atlanta region had 17 days when ground-ozone bypassed federal pollution limits, potentially sending older people and those struggling with illness to the hospital, while the Athens area saw only two such occurrences.
Metro Atlanta had 11 bad-air days in 2004; 13 in 2003; 37 in 2002; 20 in 2001; and 46 in 2000 and 69 in 1999.
A chief component of smog, ground-level ozone is created when nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds cook in the summer sun.
While ozone in the stratosphere helps block the sun's harmful rays, at ground level it acts as a lung irritant and can be harmful to human health, particularly among the young, the elderly and those with respiratory problems.