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Not breathing easy: local pollution levels could be highest in the United States

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Posted: Tuesday, November 27, 2012 3:15 pm | Updated: 2:01 pm, Wed Jan 16, 2013.

The particulate pollution levels in North Pole and in Fairbanks in recent days may be the highest in the United States.

I am hedging that statement and not saying that they are the highest because the information compiled and distributed by the Environmental Protection Agency is incomplete. Direct comparisons are difficult because of the weaknesses in the way the data is reported and collected from cities and states, but some lessons can be learned.

What I can say is this—the website run by the EPA, www.airnow.gov, shows no place else in the United States with pollution levels matching those in Fairbanks or North Pole.

Fairbanks and North Pole are not included on the list for the EPA site because the borough does not participate in the voluntary program. I have written to Mayor Luke Hopkins and to Alice Edwards of the state Department of Environmental Conservation to suggest that the borough and state should participate.

There are 300 U.S. cities participating in the program regarding particle pollution.

While the lack of participation in the national program makes comparisons with other places difficult, we do have local research posted by the borough to give an hourly look at conditions in downtown Fairbanks and North Pole.

At 8 a.m. in North Pole today, the level was 210 micrograms per cubic meter for particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers, while it was 76 micrograms per cubic meter in downtown Fairbanks. The North Pole reading peaked at 298 at midnight.

The airnow website listed five places in California as having the highest pollution levels this morning in the Lower 48. But all of those cities had cleaner air than Fairbanks and North Pole.

Particulate matter is one of the six pollutants measured and it is not the biggest problem in every spot.

The five places at the top of the list this morning were all in Calfornia—Hanford, Bakersfield, Fresno, Visalia, and Elk Grove.

Hanford reported particulate pollution of 42 micrograms, making its air "unhealthy for sensitive groups."

Bakersfield, Calif. had a reading of 58 micrograms this morning, while Fresno showed a reading of 29 micrograms and Visalia had a reading of 56  micrograms.

As in the Fairbanks and North Pole areas, stagnant air is a key factor in the buildup of fine particulate matter in the atmosphere in the San Joaquin Valley. Elk Grove, which is near Sacramento, had a reading of 13 micrograms.

The particles are referred to as "pm 2.5," which means pieces of  matter that are 2.5 micrometers in diameter or smaller.

The particles, 30 times smaller than the width of a human hair, are too small to be seen with the eye and they are inhaled deeply into the lungs where they become lodged.

One of the other difficulties of making comparisons among regions, is that the EPA does not keep official track of hourly readings of pollutants. Instead, it uses a 24-hour average as the basis for air quality determinations.

In Fairbanks and North Pole, the pollution levels vary greatly throughout the day, depending upon home heating practices. The pollution levels tend to spike at night when people turn down their stoves and reduce the air flow, creating more incomplete combustion.

The map with this entry shows the Lower 48 pm 2.5 conditions today. Most of the country is in green, meaning that the pm 2.5 levels are about half of the EPA limits. That includes many of the major cities in the country.

The areas in yellow are those with "moderate" air quality. The  upper limit of "moderate" is the EPA standard of 35 micrograms per cubic meter for a 24-hour average.

If Alaska were to be included in that  map, Fairbanks  and North Pole would be the only spots in red and purple.

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