Air Quality Q & A

Q: We don’t have serious smog problems like they do in Los Angeles, Houston, New York, and other cities, so why is our air quality a problem?

Chairs along the Lake Michigan shoreline. 

Chairs along the Lake Michigan shoreline. 

A: Smog is a catch-all term used to describe air pollution that contains both ozone and particulate matter.  Ozone is a colorless gas that is not readily visible.  Particulate matter is a different story. Some particles are large or dark enough to be seen as soot, smoke, or even haze. Others are so small that individually they can only be detected with an electron microscope. West Michigan has traditionally been more affected by high ozone levels than high particulate matter levels because of our proximity to Lake Michigan. The Lake provides the heat, sunlight, and humidity necessary for the precursor pollutants in dirty air masses from the southwest to form ozone. Those cities with visible smog frequently have high particle and ozone levels. High ozone and particulate matter levels are a problem because they are unhealthy to breathe.

Q: Are ground-level ozone and particulate matter health problems?

A: Yes, if they are at high enough levels. Ground-level ozone and particulate matter are particular problems for people with respiratory illnesses, children, the elderly, and those who are active outdoors. Even for healthy people engaged in moderate outdoor activity, breathing air laden with ozone and particulate matter can create temporary health problems, such as coughing and shortness of breath. Air pollution is a definite health problem.

Q: Does mowing my lawn or using other gasoline-powered equipment really hurt air quality?

A: Yes, it can.  Small gasoline engines tend to be less efficient and have fewer pollution controls than vehicle engines.  For example, operating a gasoline-powered outboard motorboat for one hour produces as much ozone-causing VOCs as driving a car from Grand Rapids to New York City (about 800 miles).  Each individual action is important.  The cumulative actions of two million households can have a strong impact.

Q: What are the best ways to "burn clean" (and reduce the amount of particulate matter I emit)?

A: Just by changing the way you burn wood in your woodstove, you can save money, reduce air pollution, and protect your health. Upgrading to an EPA-certified woodstove or other clean burning technology is a great way to start. All new stoves are EPA-certified and burn cleaner and more efficiently. A clean-burning stove emits far less particle pollution - 70 percent less, on average - than an older, less-efficient stove, and uses 30% less wood. It is also important to choose the right firewood. Hardwoods are the best, and all firewood should be split, securely covered or stored, and aged at least six months. Remember to never burn trash or treated wood, which can emit toxic air pollutants. For more information on clean burning, click here. You can also find free resources about burning clean here

Q: What will happen if healthy air quality cannot be maintained?

A: Failure to maintain compliance with air quality standards will result in continued nonattainment status.  If these areas fail to maintain the standard after they become attainment, contingency control measures must be implemented to quickly and permanently reduce emissions.  Automobile testing or additional controls on products or industry could be mandated.  The costs of additional environmental measures would be born by the community.