We Must All Work Together to Combat Air Pollution

12/01/03 by John Wear

Hazy sunset

By Dr. John E. Wear Jr.

December 2003

As I look back on it, Sheila Holman’s speech was the one that really caused me to want to spend my time working to mitigate air pollution in Rowan County. Sheila, who is with the North Carolina Division of Air Quality, was in town last spring to talk to the Rowan County Commissioners about the effects of ground-level ozone on our health.

She told us that children may suffer lifetime effects if they are exposed to air pollution over significant periods of time. They have narrower airways than adults, so their airways can be obstructed more easily. They are also subject to frequent respiratory infections caused by ozone, and these infections can stunt the growth of their lungs so that they have sub-normal lung function later in life.

This fact alone was enough to convince me that our community needs to begin working on this problem. We don’t want our children and our grandchildren to suffer because we sat on our hands and did nothing.

That’s why we at the Catawba College Center for the Environment have offered to spearhead an effort to educate the public about ozone pollution and to foster strategies to mitigate that pollution. The recent announcement by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency citing Rowan County for its failure to meet federal air pollution control standards makes this initiative even more imperative. Rowan is now one of 32 counties in the state that have been designated as non-attainment areas.

This comes on the heels of the American Lung Association’s report earlier this year that Rowan is the 16th worst county in the nation for air quality. Ozone monitors in Rowan recorded 74 days from 1999 to 2001 when ozone levels climbed to unhealthy levels.

Some question the accuracy of the “16th worst” designation. Not all counties have monitors, so the fact that our ozone levels are recorded may bring us this dubious distinction. But whether we are 16th or 160th out of more than 3,000 counties in the nation, we have a problem. Just ask people who suffer from asthma or men and women who run on summer afternoons. The joggers around Salisbury will tell you our community suffers from poor air quality.

It’s a problem we could have predicted. After all, we are downwind from the worst polluting metropolitan area in the state. Our proximity to Charlotte/Mecklenburg and to I-85 clearly affects the quality of the air we breathe in Rowan. That means we cannot solve the problem alone. But we can’t tell Charlotte/Mecklenburg to clean up its act if we aren’t willing to take a leadership role and address the situation in our own county.

Because this is a regional problem, the Catawba Center for the Environment will sponsor a lecture series, beginning Jan. 27, to offer information about the issue. Our first speaker will be Pat McCrory, mayor of Charlotte, who will talk to us about Charlotte’s plans to address the situation.


Let’s look at the situation in Rowan. Virtually every day this summer that was hot and sunny carried an ozone alert. It was especially problematic this year because we had so many rainy days that people flocked outside during the sunny days, whether it was good for them or not.

Children were eager to get to the swimming pool or the baseball field. Construction workers had to work on the high-ozone days in order to make up for the rainy days when construction was delayed. And people with-out air-conditioning just had to weather the pollution because they couldn’t close their windows and stay inside.

I had parents come to me this summer with concern about raising their children in Rowan County. Others have told me they have had to go to the doctor with stinging eyes and respiratory complaints – all the result of air pollution. The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services estimated that elevated ozone levels in 1997 cost the state more than $19 million in respiratory-related hospital admissions. The authors of the N.C. Clean Smokestacks Plan reported that total costs related to ozone amount to $37 per person each year. Those statistics suggest that annual health costs in Rowan could total $4.8 million.

While health problems related to ground-level ozone are significant, they clearly aren’t our only worries. Air pollution in Rowan can have a negative effect on our economy. The non-attainment status recently conferred on Rowan by the EPA could impair our ability to attract new industry or to encourage expansion of industries that are already here. It will also mean the loss of federal funds to build roads. With the recent closing of Pillowtex, this is a bad time to endure yet another blow to an already suffering economy.

While all the counties in the Central Piedmont need to address this issue, the truth is that Rowan is in a unique position to take the lead. For the past five years we have been in the process of creating a Sustainable Community Development Commission that involves a wide spectrum of our citizens in an effort to create a vision that addresses both quality-of-life issues and economic development.

In addition, we have here in Rowan the Catawba Center for the Environment which is capable of educating the public about environmental issues.

That combination means that this county is poised to deal with ozone pollution. We can set the example that will help elected officials in other counties tackle the problem in their communities.

This is serious business, but we can do something about it if we will all work together. Everyone needs to be involved – from individual citizens to the largest industries. If we own the problem and begin making changes now, we can improve the quality of our air for ourselves and for our children and grandchildren. The situation is clearly a call for action. Our future depends on it.

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