Wrap up some eco-gifts in the season of giving, in this very challenging COVID-19 2020. In particular, consider giving tools that promote clean air. That’s the seasonal message from four Arizona environmental departments: the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ), Maricopa County Air Quality Department (MCAQD), Pima County Department of Environmental Quality (PDEQ), and Pinal County Air Quality Control District.
“ADEQ and its partners encourage Arizonans to give the gift of clean air this holiday season through actions that can improve the quality of our air all year long,” says Daniel Czecholinski, director of the ADEQ Air Quality Division, Phoenix.
His group’s responsibilities include air quality forecasting (or Air Quality Indexes, AQIs), monitoring and analyzing data, issuing permits, compliance inspections, vehicle emissions testing, asbestos compliance inspections and preserving visibility in the state’s urban areas, national parks and the wilderness. (See sidebar, “Some Clean Air Terms.”)
Continuing the “Burn Cleaner, Burn Better” campaign ADEQ and MCAQD began a few years ago, this year’s expanded partnership coincides with the 50th anniversary of the federal Clean Air Act Amendments, which have rewarded Americans and Arizonans with significant environmental and health benefits. Following the Clean Air Act of 1963, President Nixon signed the comprehensive Clean Air Act Amendments on December 31, 1970; other amendments have followed.
ADEQ works with the state’s three most populous counties to administer the provisions of that federal legislation and Arizona’s rules and maintains air quality oversight of county and state facilities within all other state counties, excluding tribal lands. The Environmental Protection Agency Region 9 issues air quality permits on tribal lands in Arizona, except for Navajo Nation and the Gila River Indian Community, which have authority to implement portions of the permitting programs.
Arizona’s collaborative air quality monitoring network comprises 100-plus air-quality monitoring stations; the data helps ADEQ and its partners comply with provisions of the Clean Air Act and its amendments. Depending on location, the stations measure levels of ozone, particulate matter 10 (PM10), particulate matter (PM2.5) and other regulated pollutants. Coarse particulates (PM10) have diameters 10 micrometers or less and fine particulates (PM2.5) diameters 2.5 micrometers or less.
“Thanks to the collective efforts of industry and our communities, Arizona has much cleaner air today than 50 years ago, when the Clean Air Act went into effect. Even as our economy has thrived and our population boomed, Arizona has been able to achieve major improvements in the quality of the air we breathe,” says Czecholinski. “But we still have more work to do, as we strive to meet more stringent federal air quality standards designed to protect our health and environment.”
Winter Wonderland, Winter Challenges
Our world-destination desert winters are, however, times of challenged air quality.
“Winter brings special air quality concerns because of temperature inversions. Cold air sinks down the mountains overnight, trapping whatever we put into the air during the evening and early morning and concentrating the pollution at ‘nose-level,’” explains Ursula Nelson, PDEQ director, in Tucson.
Also during the holiday season, residential wood burning typically increases: in fireplaces, outdoor fire pits and even fireworks.
“Avoiding wood burning, unless that is the sole source of heat, is a great way to reduce the amount of smoke in the air,” she adds. “And refraining from idling your vehicle’s engine in drive-thrus or in the driveway will also help keep the air healthier to breathe.”
With more people at home because of the pandemic, there could be more wood burning this year that could increase fine particulate matter from smoke (PM2.5), which accumulates near the ground overnight and in the morning. Absorbed into the bloodstream, fine particulates can reduce lung function, exacerbate bronchitis and asthma, and even lead to more severe impairments.
Maricopa County periodically has days with high levels of air pollution caused by wood-burning smoke and issues “No Burn Days” throughout the holiday season, especially during the winter months.
“PM2.5 smoke poses a serious health risk to the elderly, children with asthma, and folks with respiratory issues. The particles can be absorbed into the bloodstream and decrease lung function, exacerbate bronchitis and asthma, and increase chances for heart attacks and premature death,” says Philip McNeely, MCAQD director, Phoenix.
Children under 18, older adults, and people with diabetes, heart disease, asthma or other lung diseases are the most vulnerable, but even the healthiest adults can be affected. Studies have linked particle pollution exposure to a variety of problems including irritation of the airways; coughing or difficulty breathing; decreased lung function; aggravated asthma; development of chronic bronchitis; irregular heartbeat; heart attacks; and premature death of people with heart or lung disease.
“All of these conditions can affect those with COVID,” adds McNeely.
Nelson says: “We always think of children and people with lung diseases as being at risk, but did you know that cardiac disease puts one at risk when pollution levels are elevated? Whatever we can do to reduce the amount of pollution in the air will help those who are medically fragile, including individuals with COVID-19.”
“We ask residents to take simple steps like don’t burn wood on a No Burn Day, when the pollutant levels are the highest and unhealthiest. And, to help combat ozone, we ask residents to drive less, fuel after dark and avoid using leaf blowers,” says McNeely.
Elizabeth Walton, executive director, American Lung Association in Arizona in Phoenix, explains that new research has established that long-term exposure to fine-particle pollution is associated with an 11% increase in deaths from COVID-19, which has already been responsible for 250,000-plus deaths in the United States as of late November 2020.
“For 50 years, the amended Clean Air Act has saved American lives, improved our air quality and protected our health,” she says. But climate change and other events are offsetting some of these gains. “Rising temperatures, devastating wildfires and catastrophic floods all create air quality issues and compound the lung health challenges facing our most vulnerable communities,” she says.
“Now, in the midst of a generational lung health crisis, cleaning up air pollution is more important than ever,” Walton adds. “We must do more to protect the air we breathe and ensure that all communities are afforded the health benefits of cleaner air.”
Gifts that Give Life
Take a deep breath and take out the ribbons and bows: Here are some gifts that help improve Arizona’s air quality:
- Download the Air Arizona App—ADEQ’s free Air Arizona mobile app (in English and Spanish) displays the ADEQ Air Quality Forecast Team’s hourly air quality forecasts for the Phoenix, Nogales, Tucson, and Yuma communities to help people plan their days and reduce potential health impacts of air pollution.
Air Arizona sends alerts to an app user’s home screen when a High Pollution Watch or Advisory (HPW/HPA) is in effect and provides suggestions for how to protect health during hours of potentially bad air quality. (See sidebar, “Some Clean Air Terms.”) To download the app: azdeq.gov/AirAZ.
- Use ADEQ’s Voluntary Vehicle Repair Program (VVRP)—People who live in the Phoenix or Tucson area with a vehicle 12 years or older that has failed an emissions test may qualify for up to $550 in vehicle repairs: azdeq.gov/CarHelp.
- Mowing Down Pollution—To improve air quality and reduce air pollution produced by gasoline-powered lawn and garden equipment, ADEQ has partnered with the MCAQD and the PDEQ to offer lawn and garden emission reduction programs.
Available to residents of Maricopa and Pima counties, these programs offer vouchers toward the purchase of a new electric- or battery-powered lawn mower and one lawn and garden device when the old working gasoline-powered equipment is recycled. For Maricopa County, see cleanairmakemore.com/lawn/. For the Pima County version, see “Cut Down Pollution”: pima.gov/HealthyAir.
Reel, or push, mowers are not covered, although program administrators are working to add them: azdeq.gov/node/6221.
- Maricopa County Fireplace Retrofit Program—Designed to reduce air pollution from wood-burning fireplaces, this opportunity provides up to $2,000 to retrofit a wood-burning fireplace to a cleaner, healthier natural gas log set.
Residents can use their natural gas log set fireplaces on designated No Burn Days. Other cleaner options include a fireplace retrofit, certified wood stoves, pellet stoves, gas and/or electric fireplaces. For more details and to sign up, visit cleanairmakemore.com/fireplace-retrofit-program/.
See EPA’s guidance for cleaner-burning fireplace options and fireplace retrofits: epa.gov/burnwise/choosing-right-fireplace-or-fireplace-retrofit-device.
“So much progress has been made in the last 50 years to improve air quality throughout the nation,” says Nelson. “Pollution from bigger sources is regulated through the implementation of the Clean Air Act. What’s left are the smaller, individual emitters—like you and me. We can make or break the quality of the air we all breathe: together. Healthy air is in our hands.”