Tiny particles in air kill 900 every year in Atlanta, study says

By Charles Seabrook

May 9, 1996
More than 900 people in metro Atlanta die each year from microscopic particles of soot, dust, gaseous droplets and other fine matter spewing from smokestacks and car exhausts, says a study released Wednesday.

Nationwide, “particulate matter” at levels far below what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers safe is causing 64,000 people to die early of heart and lung maladies each year, said the study by the Natural Resources Defense Council. An estimated 946 of those deaths occur in the 13-county metro Atlanta area.

Atlanta ranked No.14 out of 239 metropolitan areas in the number of deaths attributable to particulate matter.

In a statement, EPA Administrator Carol Browner said she welcomed the new study. “A growing body of evidence now suggests that particulate matter poses a serious threat to public health in many American cities and may contribute to premature deaths from heart and lung disease”, she said.

Rafael Ballagas, an air quality expert at Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division, said the state anticipates the EPA will severely tighten particulate matter standards this year, and the EPD has ordered new air monitoring equipment for Atlanta to comply with the new standards.

Whether Atlanta can meet the new limits will depend on how tightly EPA sets the standards, Ballagas said. Metro Atlanta is currently in compliance with EPA’s particulate matter standard, but the area perennially violates the standard for ozone, another dangerous pollutant.

According to the new study, Atlanta ranks No. 19 in the nation for the worst levels of particulate matter.

Particulate matter is made up of particles 10 microns or less in size – less than one-seventh the width of a human hair. The very fine particles can be inhaled into the lungs, where they weaken lung and heart tissue. Larger particles are effectively filtered out by the human respiratory system before they are inhaled.

The NRDC study, as well as a number of other studies by Harvard University and the American Cancer Society, suggests particulate matter is now more dangerous than ozone, the major component of smog.

The new study is the first to estimate the extent of mortality in specific metropolitan areas from particulate air pollution.

“The conclusions [of the report] are sound” , said Dr. Howard Frumkin Emory University associate professor of environmental and occupational health.

Deaths and particulates

The metropolitan areas with the highest number of deaths attributed to soot, smoke, dust
and other fine particles:

City Deaths
1 Los Angeles-Long Beach 5,873
2 New York 4,024
3 Chicago 3,479
4 Philadelphia 2,599
5 Detroit 2,123
6 Riverside-San Bernadino, Calif. 1,905
7 San Francisco-Oakland 1,270
8 Pittsburgh 1,216
9 St. Louis 1,195
10 Cleveland 1,161
11 Phoenix 1,110
12 Anaheim-Santa Ana, Calif. 1,053
13 San Diego 999
14 Atlanta 946
15 Houston 939
138 Columbus 76
145 Augusta 68

Caution urged on use of ozone to clean air

IAQ expert Michael A. Price, MAP Environmental, Sterling, Va., says he continues to get inquiries from contractors interested in the use of ozone as an air-filtration device.

In general, he gives a thumbs-down and prescribes other ways of improving a building’s indoor air quality.

“When ozone is introduced into the airstream on a continual basis at low concentrations”, Price said, “it has pleasant odor characteristics and will mask indoor air pollutants that may exist in a home or office.

“This can be a potentially dangerous situation, especially when dangerous chemical odors are masked. The use of agents to mask indoor air quality problems is strongly discouraged by the IAQ industry”.

Price said use of deodorizers and sealants falls under the same category.

“Indoor air quality problems should always be identified and properly abated, and necessary engineering modifications implemented to prevent recurrence.”

Price cites information taken from the National Safety Council’s “Fundamentals of Industrial Hygiene.”

  • Ozone is an irritant that affects both the upper respiratory tract and lung tissue.
  • Ozone is a colorless, explosive gas.
  • It has a pleasant characteristic odor in concentrations of less than 2 PPM.
  • It is slightly water soluble and is used as a disinfectant.
  • The threshold limit value (TLV) for ozone is 0.1 PPM, which caused no obvious injury by may result in premature aging, similar to that from continued exposure to ionizing radiation, if exposure is sufficiently prolonged.
  • Daily intermittent exposure above 5 PPM (reported for arc welders)may cause incapacitating pulmonary congestion.
  • Occupation dermatitis can be caused by chemical agents including oxidizers. Ozone is an oxidizer, which unites with hydrogen and liberates nascent oxygen on the skin, causing skin reactions.
  • Ozone is a soluble gas that has the potential to reach the deeper recesses of the respiratory tract, affecting mainly the bronchiole and the adjacent alveolar spaces, where it may produce pulmonary edema within a few hours when present in elevated levels.
  • Ozone reacts with all oxidizable materials (organic and inorganic).
  • Ozone is an irritant to eyes and mucus membranes. It causes pulmonary edema and respiratory disease.
  • There is mounting evidence of chronic effects from longer-term or recurring exposures to ozone at or below levels of acute concentration. Price said he does not recommend ozone treatment except for cases such as restoration work (after a fire, for instance), severe microbial mitigation, and food storage. And then, applicators must be properly trained, and ozone levels monitored and brought back to background levels prior to reoccupancy.