Southeast Wisconsin area ranks high in air pollution, raises concerns for at-risk individuals

The American Lung Association’s State of the Air 2012 report released on April 25 found that the Milwaukee-Racine-Waukesha area is the 20th-most polluted area in terms of short-term particle pollution.

The report also found that among the more than 1.7 million living in the area, more than 434,000 live with a cardiovascular disease, while nearly 110,000 live with adult asthma.

According to Dona Wininsky, director of public policy and communication for the American Lung Association of Wisconsin, particle air pollution can be a concern for these individuals.

“With particle pollution, virtually anybody with heart or lung problems (is at risk),” Wininsky said. “I’d say also children, whose lungs are still developing, the elderly, whose lungs are deteriorating, and anyone who works or spends a lot of time outdoors.”

Dennis Sobush, an associate professor of physical therapy, said there are both immediate and long-term effects to being exposed to poor air quality.

“A person might experience shortness of breath if oxygen is compromised,” Sobush said. “A person might also experience chest pains or have a heart attack. They might need to seek hospitalization. The level of concentration is going to have an immediate effect. The long-term effects are things like increased mortality (rate), emphysema and lung cancer.”

This report comes just two weeks after the Environmental Protection Agency revealed the metro Milwaukee area would likely meet its standards for ozone levels. The EPA conclusions were based on 2008-’10 data that would make Milwaukee an “attainment” area, improving upon it’s previous classification.

However, as Wininsky explains, ozone and short-particle pollution are two different discussions.

“Ozone, or what we call smog, is a chemical pollutant that needs heat and sunlight, organic compounds and nitrogen oxides,” Wininsky said. “Particle pollution, or what we call soot, on the other hand is physical particles. Most of the time it’s the product of some kind of burning. If you’ve ever been behind a big diesel truck you see the exhaust, and that’s contributing to particle pollution.”

William Brower, professor emeritus of mechanical engineering, said diesel could be a major contributor of air pollution in the Milwaukee area.

“Milwaukee has a lot of trucking in and around (the city),” Brower said. “Diesel in the last 20 years or so did not have any regulations whatsoever until (the city) finally got some.”

Both Brower and Wininsky also point to burning by the city’s industrial plants as another possible contributor to the high particle pollution levels.

A goal for the ALA is to keep in place the Clean Air Act, established in 1963, though the act has come under fire from some who say it is hurting businesses.

Sobush, however, does not agree with the criticism of the act.

“Big oil companies and lobbyists are trying to put an economic label on (the Clean Air Act) saying it’s going to cost (them more),” Sobush said. “It’s likely not having an impact on fuel costs. Big oil companies are trying to place fear in our minds. If the clean air act is blocked the air quality will become poorer (and) more people will be going to the hospital with respiratory problems.”

Wininsky confirms the association’s priority of defending the Clean Air Act.

“The Clean Air Act requires that you do meet some kind of standard,” Wininsky said. “The first thing that I would say is we need to keep the Clean Air Act. Anytime there is an attack on the Clean Air Act we always make calls to defend it.”

The top five most polluted cities in short-term particle pollution were all in California, while the only other Wisconsin city to crack the top 25 was Green Bay at 14.