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Air quality better, but still poor

LAWRENCEVILLE - There was good news and bad news in the 10th annual State of the Air report released Wednesday by the American Lung Association.

The good news: Metro Atlanta's air quality has improved in the last decade. The bad news: Metro Atlanta's, and specifically Gwinnett County's, air quality still received a failing grade when it comes to ozone and particle pollution.

Specifically, the report ranked metro Atlanta No. 23 on a list of 25 cities most polluted by ozone. The ranking comes courtesy of air quality measurements reported by cities and counties to the Environmental Protection Agency between 2005 and 2007.

"I like to think of Atlanta as the best of the worst," said June Deen, the director of advocacy for the American Lung Association in Georgia. "But retrospectively, we have gotten better. The air was worse when we started."

Kevin Green, the director of the Clean Air Campaign, said its difficult to draw meaningful conclusions from year-to-year comparisons. But he added that just because the metro area has made improvements in the last decade, it isn't time to crack out the champagne just yet.

"We've still got a lot of work to do but the long term trends indicate we're making progress," Green said. "But every time a public health study comes out it says that the experts have determined that lower concentrations of ozone are even more of a problem than we previously thought."

This fact was reiterated by Deen.

"Georgia's ozone grades in the State of the Air 2009 report incorporate the new national air quality standard adopted in March 2008," Deen said. "This standard recognizes that even lower levels of ozone can be more harmful than previously thought."

Ozone is the primary ingredient of smog and is harmful to breathe, especially to youngsters and seniors. Health effects from air pollution include changes in lung function, coughing, heart attacks and lung cancer.

Both Green and Deen said the ozone problem is largely tied to automobile emissions.

"More than half of ground level ozone comes from tailpipes," Green said. "That's why regulators are looking more and more at voluntary strategies to get to cleaner air, which is what we promote."

Green said the Clean Air Campaign has 145 Gwinnett-based employer partners who are working with their employees to promote commuter programs. He said the program saw a 24 percent increase last year and so far this year has risen 8 percent. He acknowledged it has been a tougher sell with low gas prices and a tough economy, though.

"Eighty-five percent of commuters drive alone every day, so there is a significant opportunity to increase the numbers," he said. "But there are no silver bullets to solve the problem of getting clean air. We still have a lot of work to do."

For more information, visit www.stateoftheair.org.