Arlington County's air is dangerously polluted with ozone and particulate matter, placing its citizens at a greater risk of hospitalization and emergency room visits for respiratory symptoms and cardiovascular disease, according to a new report by the American Lung Association.
The report, "State of the Air: 2006," gave Arlington County a grade of "F" for its high levels of ozone and a grade of "C" for its particulate matter pollution.
Arlington had the second worst ozone pollution in Virginia, though the report also assigned failing grades to neighboring jurisdictions Fairfax, Alexandria, Loudoun and Prince William counties.
According to the report, Fairfax County is the 23rd most ozone-polluted county in the nation.
Analyzing three years (2002 to 2004) of air quality data, the report graded jurisdictions based on the number of days the locality's air was harmful. Arlington experienced one day that was considered "very unhealthful," seven days that were considered "unhealthful" and 18 days that were "unhealthful for sensitive groups."
Arlington's ozone pollution placed at risk 45,600 people with cardiovascular disease, 14,000 adults and children with asthma, 6,100 people with chronic bronchitis, 2,100 people with emphyzema and 9,400 people with diabetes, according to the report.
Ground-level ozone is a highly reactive gas that forms when sunlight comes in contact with hydrocarbon vapors and nitrogen oxides. When inhaled, ozone reacts chemically with internal body tissues, such as the lungs. Ozone is the chief ingredient in smog.
Hydrocarbons are emitted by motor vehicles, gas stations, dry cleaners and oil and chemical storage facilities. Nitrogen oxides are primarily a by-product of burning fuel in power plants and automobiles.
Particulate matter, or PM, is a generic term referring to a combination of fine — sometimes microscopic — solids, including soot, mold, ash and volatile organic compounds. Particulate pollution is emitted from a variety of sources, but most notably from coal-fired power plants such as the Mirant Corporations' power plants in Alexandria and Dickerson, Md.
For especially sensitive groups like senior citizens, children and people with asthma or upper respiratory disease, ozone and particulate pollution can lead to shortness of breath, painful breathing, an increased likelihood of asthma attacks and hospitalization and premature death.
In the Washington, D.C., area, cars and trucks comprise 37 percent of the region's air pollution, power plants account for 22 percent, area sources (such as gas stations) make up 22 percent and off-road construction equipment is responsible for 19 percent, according to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
Some regional environmental officials questioned the veracity of the air quality report, saying it relied on outdated data and failed to consider improvements made over the last year.
"It doesn't really reflect the progress that we've made," said Joan Rohlfs, chief of air quality planning for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
In 2005, Rohlfs pointed out, the Washington, D.C., area had no "red days," or days during which the air was harmful to everyone. The region did, however, experience 19 "orange days," which are unhealthful for sensitive groups.
A spokesperson for the American Lung Association did not return a phone call for comment.