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Air quality is a key factor in determining personal and environmental health. Air pollution can cause or exacerbate certain health conditions, it can affect food supply chains and quality of agriculture yields and, more broadly, it can impact the health of ecosystems around the state by endangering animals and vegetation. Further, it can contribute to climate change in our region. We spoke with Georgia EPD to better understand what air pollution challenges the region is facing.

Major pollutants to look out for when considering the air quality in Georgia include:

  • Nitrogen Oxides (NOx) (and resulting ground level Ozone (O3) pollution)
  • Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) (and resulting ground level Ozone (O3) pollution)
  • Fine Particulate Matter (PM2.5)
  • Lead (Pb)
  • Sulfur Dioxide (SO2)
  • Carbon Monoxide (CO)

You can read about additional pollutants in our first air quality blog, A Breath of Fresh Air and more about health impacts in Clean Air is for Everyone.

For Georgia, what factors are contributing to the buildup of these pollutants in the air?

The sources of air pollutants can be divided into two major categories: biogenic and anthropogenic.

Biogenic sources are emissions from naturally occurring sources, such as trees and soil. They comprise the largest share of emissions for VOCs. The primary VOC from biogenic sources is isoprene, which is predominantly emitted by plants and trees.

Anthropogenic sources are emissions that come from human-driven sources. These include the following categories from the graphic below:

  • Stationary – Other (e.g., chemical plants, refineries)
  • EGU (Combustion) (EGU stands for Electric Generating Units or Power Plants)
  • Non-Road Mobile
  • On-Road Mobile
  • Solvents
  • Miscellaneous (small contributions from sources like Prescribed and Agricultural Fires, Gasoline Terminals, Waste Disposal, Commercial Cooking, Non-Industrial and Residential)

Outside of VOCs, the vast majority of air pollutant sources are driven by anthropogenic factors including NOx, the major contributor to ozone formation – meaning that we, as humans, are the primary contributors to air pollution. Our use of cars, construction vehicles and materials, and electric generating units (e.g., power plants) are some of the ways that we contribute to air pollution.

The breakdown of sources contributing to each pollutant for the Atlanta area* is outlined in the graphic below.

Where does Georgia air pollution come from?

Breakdown by pollutant for the year, 2017. To see more detail, you can read the full GA EPD report here.

Of course, air pollution is a threat to our health and the health of our environment beyond the direct impacts of breathing in pollutants – it also contributes to climate change.

What about air pollution’s contribution to climate change?

Climate change, or the abnormal fluctuations in local climate patterns as a result of increased levels of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide in the environment, is a critical issue that faces the metro Atlanta region and beyond.

For the Atlanta region, EPA estimated that climate change would impact every aspect of our lives, from changing weather patterns to health and economic impacts. Some of these impacts for our region could include:

  • An increase in annual temperatures by between 4° and 9° F
  • Increased risk of water and food-borne disease
  • Worsening seasonal allergies
  • The depletion of water in reservoirs because of increased evaporation
  • Less frequent but more extreme precipitation patterns, which can disrupt infrastructure work
  • Drought and flood cycles that disrupt the agriculture sector and impact food production
  • Increased community health costs from heart and lung-related illnesses

While air pollution remains a significant issue for the region, Georgia has seen statewide reductions in emissions of six major “criteria” air pollutants – Ozone (O3), Particulate Matter (PM), Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2), Lead (Pb), Sulfur Dioxide (SO2), and Carbon Monoxide (CO). Between 1990 and 2019, these major pollutants had been reduced by 74%.  This improvement can be attributed to a variety of factors, including reduced emissions as a result of technological advancements and the implementation of national and state performance standards.

Further, the pandemic brought relief for air quality, specifically from on-road emissions, as mobility declined throughout the region. In 2020, for the first time in 40 years, Atlanta met all the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) standards for ground-level ozone.

So, with widespread vaccinations and the waning of the pandemic on the horizon, what is next for the region’s air quality?

The Future of Regional Pollution

From surveys conducted by GCO and the Atlanta Regional Commission during the COVID-19 pandemic, we know that employees and companies alike are considering how telework fits into their long-term plans. So, what does this mean for the region’s air pollution? While we can’t know exactly how things will shake out post-COVID-19, we can think about how to reduce air pollution as we move forward.

We know GA EPD reports that regional air pollution has declined over the last thirty years, and that even before the start of the pandemic, air quality had improved greatly from 1990 to 2019. Survey respondents stated that in 2019, they were working from home an average of 0.8 days per week. Post-pandemic, they hope to continue teleworking an average of 3.2 days per week. 60% of company executives agree that they expect telework to continue at least part of the time post-pandemic, with over 20% expecting that some employees will work remotely full-time. If these expectations come to pass, we will likely see some continuation of the benefits of reduced cars on the road that we saw during the pandemic, which will hopefully reduce some of the on-road contributions to air pollution that we see in the graphic above.

Want to learn more ways to reduce your impact on air pollution?

Check out our blog Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Reimagine for tangible ways to reduce your impact.

**Atlanta area counties are: Barrow, Bartow, Carroll, Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, Coweta, DeKalb, Douglas, Fayette, Forsyth, Fulton, Gwinnett, Hall, Henry, Newton, Paulding, Rockdale, Spalding and Walton

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