ST. GEORGE – Air quality, specifically pollution, is a significant factor that contributes to a community’s health or decline thereof. In an effort to monitor and mitigate these environmental concerns in Southern Utah, the City of St. George has purchased cutting-edge equipment for the measurement of potentially hazardous substances in the air.
Common air pollutants
Pollution comes in many forms, but particulate matter and ozone are mainly responsible for serious environmental and health issues and are prevalent in urban areas like St. George.
Formed by a complex mixture of solid and liquid microscopic particles in the air, particulate matter is classified as either PM10 “coarse particles,” caused by dust or PM2.5 “fine particles,” caused by smoke and chemical emissions; the latter is far more hazardous.
Ozone is a gas naturally found high in the Earth’s atmosphere that can be harmful if too much exists at or near ground level. Unhealthy ozone is caused by chemical reactions between oxides of nitrogen and volatile organic compounds, created by emissions from industrial facilities, vehicles, gasoline vapors and chemical solvents.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, particulate matter and ozone can change the balance of ecosystems, damage crops, trees and other sensitive vegetation, pollute soil and water and cause “acid rain” that damages natural and man-made materials. In people, significant exposure to these pollutants can worsen existing heart and lung conditions, cause decreased lung function, chronic cough, congestion, respiratory irritation, irregular heartbeat and even nonfatal heart attacks.
Though not visible to the naked eye, both are a main ingredient in urban smog and haze.
Monitoring and mitigation efforts
On the whole, Southern Utah has generally healthy air quality. Rather than noxious chemicals, dust – mostly from the numerous gravel, asphalt and concrete operations in the area – is the primary concern.
“It looks pretty darn nice out there,” said Bill Swensen, air quality project manager for the City of St. George. “Our air quality is stable and bad moments are few and far between.”
“Most days we have clear blue skies,” said Robert Beers, environmental health director for the Southwest Utah Public Dealth Department. “By EPA standards, we’re under allowed levels of pollution.”
Though natural events that aggravate local dust pollutants cannot be avoided, agencies can minimize the overall impact they have on air quality. Upon receiving notification of imminent high winds (classified as steady wind above 30 mph for at least five minutes) from the National Weather Service, the city broadcasts a request to industrial, construction and any other sites with dust concerns to stop all operations except for dust control. The city can forcibly shut down operations if the site does not respond within an hour. Other area municipalities also employ strict dust control ordinances.
The city enacts further monitoring measures in the form of visual observation by inspectors at individual sites. And for the past three summers, St. George has rented air quality monitoring equipment from Summit County to measure PM10 levels.
The Utah Division of Air Quality monitors PM2.5, ozone and NOx (nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide) levels for Washington County through a station in the Hurricane area. Data is gathered continually, posted for the public to view online and updated every hour. On Thursday, ozone levels were measured at .049 parts per million and PM2.5 was virtually nonexistent, classifying conditions as “Good” according to current statewide standards.
Though various community organizations, like the Southern Utah Air Quality Task Force and Utah Clean Cities, are actively involved with air quality issues, only the Utah DAQ and the city, in partnership with the health department, actively monitor conditions.
“We are firm believers in the theory that if you don’t monitor it, you can’t control it,” Swensen said.
City officials, realizing the need for monitoring beyond the loaned Summit County equipment, recently authorized the purchase and operation of a BAM 1020 particulate measurement system, designed by Met One Instruments and certified by the EPA. The total cost was estimated at $45,000 and covered by the city’s general fund budget.
The machine arrived in June, then spent several weeks at the city’s fleet headquarters being modified to fit in a trailer for easy mobility. It was towed to a parking lot near the Fort Pierce Industrial Park and commenced operation the week of Aug. 15.
“Living in a desert, dust becomes a major contributor to poor air quality at times for our community, particularly on windy days. As we continue to grow and develop, other factors will also negatively contribute to air quality in the St. George area,” Assistant to the City Manager Marc Mortensen said. “Prior to the acquisition of its own air quality monitoring equipment, the city only had access to this type of equipment for one quarter per year, which was unacceptable for a community our size. The mayor and city council authorized the purchase of this equipment in order to allow the city to monitor air quality year-round in specific areas and community-wide to determine the course of action necessary to keep poor air quality levels in check.”
The machine collects data 24/7/365, which will then be analyzed by the city in partnership with the health department. Swensen, who has played a key role in the process of acquiring the BAM 1020, said the ultimate goal is to save that data for future reference to determine air quality trends and make predictions.
This particular model was chosen mainly due to its portability. It can be shut down, moved and restarted in a 24-hour window. The city plans to relocate it throughout the county at least eight times per year. Locations are chosen due to the concern they present to air quality; most will be industrial areas.
“We’re looking forward to having that availability we didn’t have before,” Swensen said. “We’ve got a very useful monitor here.”
Though the machine is capable of monitoring both PM10 and PM2.5 levels, Swensen said it will primarily be used for PM10, as the more toxic variant is rarely a concern in Southern Utah. It has not been operating long enough to collect the data needed for an accurate measurement of current air quality.
The city plans to acquire a second BAM 1020 within the next year, which is expected to be running by the summer of 2014. It will serve as a companion to the existing machine; they will monitor the air upwind and downwind simultaneously to pinpoint what types of pollutants are blowing in and out of the area, providing even more insight on pollution patterns.
“Air quality directly correlates to a community’s health,” Swensen said. “We want to provide the community with the most detailed data possible.”
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