City pollutant levels may exceed limit

By Stephanie Saviola

President Barack Obama’s administration recently proposed a new guideline that would set a limit on nitrogen dioxide levels in the country. Nitrogen dioxide is a toxic gas that mostly comes from exhaust tailpipes, factory smokestacks and kerosene heaters.

If the proposed limit was currently enforced, Chicago would be the only major city in the country to have levels of nitrogen dioxide that would exceed the limit.

“We are a city that wants athletes to come here and compete for the Olympics, and yet we might be the only city that [exceeds] the limit,” said Joe Locastro, junior Interactive Arts and Media student.” The city needs to have all their eggs in one basket.” LoCastro has asthma, but the city’s pollution has never been an issue for him.

Within recent years, scientists have conducted studies that show even short-term exposure to nitrogen dioxide can cause health problems. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the pollutant can cause eye, nose and throat irritation and also respiratory infections.

“We had been hoping that the EPA would take action for a long time,” said Max Muller, program director for Environment Illinois. “They prescribed a set of actions a few months ago, but the actions they chose were the weakest ones they could have.”

Currently, there are limits on the amount of carbon dioxide that can be emitted in the air within a one-hour period but no limit that regulates nitrogen dioxide.

“Nitrogen dioxide interferes with the lungs’ ability to breathe and it can trigger things like asthma attacks,” said Brian Urbaszewski, director of Environmental Health Programs for Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago.

The EPA measures levels of air pollutants, including nitrogen dioxide, across the country. But according to Urbaszewski, the system for measuring the air pollutants might have a couple of flaws.

“The EPA hasn’t updated or changed the nitrogen dioxide standards since 1971, so nothing has happened for decades,” Urbaszewski said.

The machines that measure levels of air pollutants can be found on top of schools, fire stations, businesses, parks and mostly in residential areas.

Nitrogen dioxide levels are currently measured and recorded on a daily basis, as opposed to hourly measurements.

“[The machines] are in low-density areas, so they are missing the areas where nitrogen dioxide levels are the highest; they are missing near the highways,” Urbaszewski

said. “More than half of nitrogen dioxidelevels come from vehicles, so a highway is a good place to look.”

Stricter enforcement on vehicle idling time could help reduce nitrogen dioxide levels in areas where there is heavy traffic.

“More needs to be done to reduce vehicle emissions,” Urbaszewski said. “It’s hard to enforce idling limits, but if people limited their idling time it would help.”

While a large majority of air pollutants come from vehicles and forms of transportation, coal-fueled power plants are another major contributor.

“There are a lot of global warming issues that people are working on and clean energy and air quality issues are related issues that both contribute to global warming,” Muller said. “We are a fossil fuel-based economy and we need to be moving away from that.”

The EPA will be establishing new monitoring requirements throughout the country. New monitoring requirements will be working by January 2013.

“Once you are labeled as a bad-quality area, then you have to start moving and start figuring out how to cut nitrogen dioxide levels locally,” Urbaszewski said.

As far as the city itself doing its part, in September 2008, Mayor Richard M. Daley proposed the Chicago Climate Action Plan. The plan is set in place to help reduce pollutants that lead to climate change and have a severe global impact. The goal of the plan is to reduce 75 percent of emissions by the year 2020.

“The city of Chicago has a good climate action plan and we are happy to have it,” Muller said. “The truth is that if the standard were as low as some of the scientists say it needs to be, a number of other cities in the United States would also be in violation.”