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Published: Wednesday, 8/20/2003

Breathe easy, Toledo: Your air is the state's healthiest

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Toledo had the fewest unhealthy air days among Ohio's seven biggest metropolitan areas between 2000 and 2002.

But it had the state's highest reported asthma rate, according to a report released yesterday by an organization that promotes mass transit and anti-sprawl development.

The Surface Transportation Policy Project report recommends increasing federal funding for air quality programs, refining transportation planning models to better account for air pollution, supporting cleaner vehicle technologies, and increasing spending on mass transit, bicycle, pedestrian, and other non-motorized travel modes.

Five California cities had the highest numbers of days during the three-year sample period in which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Air Quality Index exceeded 100 on a scale of 0 to 500. At 100 and up, the air becomes “unhealthy for sensitive groups” and all should limit their outdoor exertion on those days.

Among Ohio and Michigan cities, Cleveland ranked 12th worst nationally, while Detroit ranked 19th, although Cleveland showed an improving trend over a longer period while Detroit's air quality slipped.

Toledo had only 24 days in 2000, 2001, and 2002 during which ambient levels of one or more “criteria pollutants” - ozone, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, lead, and particulate matter - reached unhealthy levels. That was the fewest among Ohio cities listed in the report.

But Toledo's adult asthma rate, as reported in a 2002 survey by the federal Centers for Disease Control, was the highest in the state, at 13.7 percent.

While the report identifies pollution from vehicles, including fine particles, carbon monoxide, and hydrocarbon-induced ozone, as one causative factor for asthma, Michelle Ernst, a report co-author, said the report was not intended to link air pollution and asthma.

“There's actually no direct correlation between asthma and air pollution, because there are so many other factors that would potentially cause asthma,” Ms. Ernst said.

The reason asthma rates were listed in the report, she said, was because “air pollution exacerbates asthma, so people with asthma are especially sensitive to air pollution.”

While Toledo may have fewer days on which air quality is a problem, a comparatively high portion of the population is affected when that happens, Ms. Ernst said.

Dr. David Grossman, Toledo-Lucas County health commissioner, said smoking is a leading candidate to explain why Toledo's asthma rate is so high despite relatively clear air.

A 2001 survey by the Centers for Disease Control of 100 metropolitan areas found Toledo had the highest smoking rate in the nation.

“We should be cleaning the air as best we can,” Dr. Grossman said yesterday. “But when more people smoke, more people are exposed to it. You can't ignore the correlation.”

Dr. John Winder, an allergist and asthma specialist in Sylvania, said another explanation for Toledo's asthma rate would be if its base air pollution level were higher than that of other cities, but fewer extreme conditions occurred.

“I'm surprised” by the data, he said.

Overall, the report said, nearly half of all Americans - 133 million people - regularly breathe unhealthy air, a condition that the report blames in “enormous increases in the amount of driving” that have offset air quality gains from clean-engine technology.

“Our study shows air pollution continues to be a serious health problem and transportation sources are a significant part of that problem. The public deserves a federal transportation program that lowers their exposure to unhealthy air and delivers transportation choices beyond simply having to turn an ignition key,” said Anne Canby, the Surface Transportation Policy Project's president.

The report is one of a series that the group has released in hopes of influencing congressional debates on new federal transportation legislation to replace the current program, which expires this year.



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