Thursday, August 5, 2004

Study: Air to be dirtier in 50 years

Scientists say higher temperatures from global warming will be culprit

By Dan Klepal
Enquirer staff writer

Air quality around Greater Cincinnati will get worse over the next 50 years even if the amount of air pollution stays the same over that time, according to a new study by scientists at Johns Hopkins and Columbia universities.

The study, released Wednesday, was performed in conjunction with researchers from Yale and two other universities and looked at how higher temperatures caused by global warming will affect air quality in 15 cities, including Cincinnati.

Patrick Kinney, associate professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia and one of the authors of the study, said researchers turned to NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies for information on how much temperatures are expected to rise over the next five decades.

The estimated increase of between 5 and 9 degrees was combined with pollution data from 1996 in a computer model that showed smog levels will increase significantly with even slightly higher temperatures.

Smog is a lung irritant that triggers asthma attacks and poses particular health threats to children and the elderly. In healthy adults, smog can result in lung and eye irritation, decreased lung capacity and susceptibility to respiratory illness such as bronchitis and pneumonia. Smog forms when pollutants from automobiles, utilities and industry are baked on hot, sunny days with little wind.

Kinney said air pollution levels were kept the same so they could determine the effect of climate change on smog.

"Reducing ozone is something states are doing right now," Kinney said. "We want to have those folks understand that climate change is something they need to take into consideration, otherwise they're not going to get their predictions right.

"Smog is a persistent air pollution problem for millions of Americans. Unfortunately, our research shows that global warming is likely to only make this problem harder to manage."

By mid-century in Cincinnati, the study found:

• The number of summer days with "good" air quality (based on U.S. Environmental Protection Agency criteria) would drop from an average of 45 days per summer to 27 days per summer.

• Global warming will increase by 90 percent - from 14 days to 26 days - the number of days when ozone levels exceed the health-based air quality standard set by EPA.

• "Red alert" air quality days, when all people are advised to eliminate or limit outdoor activities, will double from three to six per summer.

Smog already is an issue in Greater Cincinnati. The region is out of compliance with new federal rules intended to limit the pollution that causes smog and must come up with a plan to get into compliance with those rules within three years.

In addition, the American Lung Association gave Hamilton County a grade of "F" for its high ozone pollution levels earlier this year, and more than 63,000 county residents suffer from asthma.

"The link between asthma and other lung ailments and air pollution is clear, and it results in too many school days missed and emergency room visits for America's children," said Dr. Donald Rucknagel, a Cincinnati doctor who is regional president of Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Kenny acknowledged that new pollution rules and cleaner-running cars could help reduce the amount of smog in 50 years. But, he said, it's also possible that an expanding population, sprawl - which creates increased dependence on motor vehicles - and more industrial development could cause pollution levels to rise.

Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, agrees that hotter weather will create more smog. But Segal said he doesn't believe anyone can know how much temperatures will rise 50 years from now.

"In short, the report should be accorded all the confidence of a weather report issued 50 years in advance," Segal said. "The chances of it being correct are minimal."


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