25 for 25: 25 Years of Progress in Fighting Ozone Air Pollution in New Hampshire
By Thomas S. Burack, DES Commissioner
In recognition of the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services’ 25th Anniversary, over the course of the year, I will highlight 25 agency activities, programs, projects and accomplishments of the past 25 years. This article, the tenth in the series, discusses efforts to reduce the health risk associated with exposure to ozone air pollution.
Ozone, a harmful air pollutant, has probably been prevalent in New Hampshire’s air since we began burning large quantities of fuel to power the industrial revolution, but it has only been since the formation of the state’s Department of Environmental Services 25 years ago that real progress has been made in protecting the state’s residents from the harmful effects of ozone.
At ground-level, ozone is formed as a result of chemical reactions caused by the presence of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are released from burning fuels in vehicles, power plants, industrial processes, and the use of chemical cleaners, solvents, and coatings. When these compounds react with strong sunlight they produce ground-level ozone. Ozone irritates, and can damage, the throat and lungs. DES issues an "Air Quality Action Day" in New Hampshire when ozone is forecast to reach unhealthy levels. During an Air Quality Action Day, people are encouraged to take precautionary measures to protect their health, especially in the afternoon when ozone levels tend to be the highest.
The establishment of the Clean Air Act in 1970 was our nation’s most significant effort to reduce air pollution, including NOx and VOCs. The Clean Air Act has reduced asthma attacks, heart disease, and numerous other health conditions that affect many Americans. The 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act set National Ambient Air Quality Standards based on health studies for six pollutants, including carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen dioxide, particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, and ozone.
In its early years, the Clean Air Act approached air pollution as a local or state concern and directed areas exceeding the health standard to develop plans to reduce air pollution within a defined time period. In 1977 portions of New Hampshire were not meeting the health standard for ozone. To come into compliance, the air monitoring program was expanded to track air pollution levels in all areas of the state. We worked with industry to reduce pollution, and the legislature enacted a mandatory motor vehicle inspection and maintenance program. Since then, New Hampshire has shown improvements in air quality for nearly all pollutants.
Unfortunately, ozone problems continued within the borders of many eastern states. We now know that a significant portion of the ozone in New Hampshire comes from outside the state. Winds transport ozone in from states to the south and west of us. These states often resisted limiting their pollution because the ozone they created did not affect them, and they did not wish to be held accountable for contributing to high ozone levels in other states.
To address this issue, in the mid-1990s, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), studied the transport issue with the help of states and stakeholders. This resulted in a program requiring 22 states to reduce nitrogen oxides from power plants. This program was a success and set the precedent for how to address air pollution transport. This brought all of New Hampshire into compliance with the health standard by the late 1990s. In 1997, EPA lowered the ozone standard to be more protective, which put southern New Hampshire above the limit. With improved understanding about ozone, the Northeast has made progress toward cleaner cars and fuels and more pollution control equipment on power plants. New Hampshire successfully met the new ozone standard in 2007.
EPA lowered the ozone standard further in 2008 based on new health studies, but our entire state continues to pass the test. New Hampshire has worked regionally as a member of the 13-state Ozone Transport Commission and participates in other regional and national forums to study and develop solutions to ozone transport. When appropriate, New Hampshire adopts pollution control plans not only to keep our own air from getting worse, but also to keep from polluting those who live downwind of us.
As we look to the future, DES expects to see EPA set lower health based standards for ozone. We need to continue to build a strong economy while taking advantage of technical advances that allow us to maintain our clean air. New Hampshire is considered one of the most livable states in the nation due in part to our clean air and clean water. We all can continue to enjoy the high quality of life in New Hampshire by working together to ensure that a healthy environment and a strong economy continue to go hand-in-hand.
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