By JUDY BERNSTEIN
Some people loved the extra hot days this summer, out at the pool or the lake, soaking up the warmth and the rays.
But Kae Schell of Middle Grove, N.Y., wasn’t one of them. Schell has lung disease and says breathing the hot and humid air was almost impossible.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m not going to be able to take a breath,” she said. “I get very, very tired and weak.”
She spent much of her time this summer indoors at the home of a friend who has air conditioning.
Schell didn’t know it, but what was making the hottest days more unbearable for her was the above-normal level of ozone in the air. Ground-level ozone, a prime component of smog, is created when chemicals in gasoline, car exhaust and power-plant emissions mix in the presence of sunlight and hot temperatures.
The resulting poor air quality can give anyone a scratchy throat and can cause more serious problems, like wheezing and congestion, for people with asthma or other lung conditions.
On days when ozone is expected to reach a level of 0.08 parts per billion, public health and environmental agencies urge people to reduce activity and stay indoors.
Throughout New York and New England this year, there were lots of days when people might not have been breathing too easily. The average temperatures for June through July broke records in at least eight cities across the Northeast, including Albany, N.Y., Rutland, Vt., and Boston, as highs repeatedly reached into the 90s, according to the Northeast Regional Climate Center at Cornell University.
Because of the hot weather, both Massachusetts and New York reported increases in the number of days on which ozone levels somewhere in the state exceeded the 0.08 ppb threshold that's considered unhealthy. In Massachusetts, the number increased from eight days last year to 17 so far this year; in New York, the number rose from 10 last year to 11 so far.
But people like Schell can take some solace that the number of days with bad air quality and temperatures over 90 wasn’t as high in the Berkshires or neighboring eastern New York as in some of the Northeast's larger metropolitan areas.
Emitting less, driving more
Environmental and health officials say they don’t know exactly why the numbers vary across the Northeast -- or even at air monitoring stations within a fairly narrow region. The weather can contribute to lower numbers in some places, because rain and clouds keep ozone down.
Lower population density also means there are fewer cars on the roads here than in the cities. But smog created in big cities can be carried by the wind to sparsely populated areas.
Even within eastern New York and western New England, the number of high-ozone days was greater in some areas than in others, perhaps because of prevailing winds carrying pollution from elsewhere.
Emissions control programs appear to be having some effect regionally, as the number of high-ozone days this year is lower than in some other recent years that weren't as hot.
But the pollution controls on cars and factories aren’t having as much of an effect as some public health advocates would like to see.
Peter Iwanowicz, chief policy officer at the American Lung Association of Northeast New York, said he's disappointed with New York’s statewide figures and particularly with the high concentrations of ozone in New York City.
“Things certainly aren’t improving as fast as they should be,” he said.
There are good new emissions-control programs that by themselves could be making a difference, he and other officials said.
One program that started several years ago puts tougher limits on summertime smokestack emissions of nitrogen oxides. In addition, more people are driving newer cars that meet stricter air-quality standards -- and some are switching to reduced-emission cars, like hybrids.
But people also are driving more, and so-called "cap and trade" pollution-control programs allow some industries to keep polluting as much as ever by buying credits from other companies that have cut their emissions. The result can be a sharp reduction in pollution in one community, with little or no change in a neighboring area.
People are also living in bigger homes and using more electricity, creating more power-plant pollution.
In Vermont, Paul Wishinski, the state air quality planner, credited the weather and the state's low population density for the fact that there have been few high-ozone days in recent years and none this year.
“In recent years, trend-wise, there does appear to be a very slight, very slow downward trend for Vermont,” he said.
Copyright 2005 Observer Publishing Inc.