Summertime in Northern Virginia usually consists of children splashing around in the pool, sun tanning with ice cold lemonade with a delicious new read in hand and spending time with family and friends while enjoying the outdoor adventures that NoVA has to offer. However, summer also tends to be a time when air pollution is at its worst. This is because chemical reactions occur between the ozone and light from the sun due to the stagnant air resulting from a more stable atmosphere, making new air pollution compounds as the reactions remain and cook in the air. This creates an unhealthy environment and a potential damper on what would have been a beautiful NoVA day.
Even though NoVA’s air pollution comes from several sources, including factories, power plants and even businesses like dry cleaners, “motor vehicles are responsible for a large portion of [Volatile Organic Compound] and [Nitrogen Oxide] emissions in the region,” according to the Metropolitan Washington Air Quality Committee.
In response to an economy with fairly consistent growth, more than 2 million people have put down roots in Northern Virginia since 1970—accounting for 45 percent of the 6 million residents in the D.C. metro area. As a result, when rush hour strikes, it doesn’t take long to realize why NoVA is ranked No. 1 in the nation for traffic congestion, according to the Northern Virginia Traffic Alliance’s website. For example, a major corridor such as I-66 outside the Beltway, which is the most congested freeway in the region, sees at least 200,000 vehicles per day but isn’t built to accommodate that capacity. As a result, large bottlenecks and bumper-to-bumper traffic regularly form and not only impact daily schedules but also the quality of NoVA’s air.
In order to mitigate gases released into the atmosphere, the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance is working on improving the roads to reduce the amount of time commuters and travelers are stuck in traffic and circulating harmful gases into the air. One project the Alliance is working on is the I-395 Express Lanes Extension Project between I-495 and Eads Street, which was approved in March and will extend until 2019. The project will convert the two HOV lanes already in place to Express Lanes while also adding a third Express Lane. They will also enhance the interchange at Eads Street for better access to the Pentagon as well as improve bus transit and sound barriers for bordering neighborhoods. “The alliance’s overall goal is to increase mobility and reduce congestion … [to] get people moving,” David Birtwistle, CEO of the Alliance, says. ”What we see as a result is a decrease in the bad air.”
Due to technological improvements like electric batteries and systems that reduce emissions and operate more efficiently, Northern Virginia has experienced an improvement in air quality despite a growing population. “Anything you can do to get more people moving enhances air quality,” says Birtwistle. “What we’ve seen since 2004 is a substantial reduction in bad air quality, and since 2013, we have had no code red days.”
Daily air quality is measured by a system of colors called the Air Quality Index. Green means good, yellow is moderate, orange indicates the air quality is unhealthy for sensitive groups, and red signifies the air is unhealthy for the general population. The AQI takes into consideration the amount of ground level ozone, which is the quantity of harmful fine particles that are flying in the air such as dust, soot and aerosols otherwise known as smog, and the effect those particles will have on the body. According to Roy Seneca, EPA region three press officer, when inhaled, those tiny particles can cause serious health problems for the very young and the elderly. “Areas with high levels of ground level ozone can cause the muscles in the airways to constrict, trapping air in your lungs, which can lead to shortness of breath and wheezing,” Seneca says. “Particle pollution … contains microscopic solids or liquid droplets that are so small they can get deep into the lungs.”
According to Virginia.gov, in 2015 the state’s average exposure to ground level ozone was 8.3 micrograms cubed, making it considerably lower than the U.S. average of 9.5 and solidifying its spot as No. 20 in the nation in terms of air quality. In comparison, Maryland’s ground level ozone more closely matched the national average at 9.6.
Northern Virginia’s air quality has been on the rise since the 1990s. This is due to an increase in mileage standards and alternative fuels as well as a decrease in the usage of older, less fuel-efficient vehicles. Between 2004 and 2006, the state had 341 days when the air quality exceeded the federal ozone standard which is marked by orange and red days. (However, that number dropped between 2013 and 2015 when only 13 days were reported as exceeding the federal Ozone standard, though it’s worth noting 9.3 of those days were in Northern Virginia.) So far this year, there has only been one day that has exceeded the federal ozone standard, and that was a code orange day. This is a significant change, indicating that efforts to improve NoVA’s air quality by The Alliance, like widening Route 28 near Dulles from two lanes to six lanes, and efforts by other entities have been succeeding.
In 2015, the EPA administrator amended the Ozone National Ambient Air Quality Standards, replacing the ground level ozone standard of 75 parts per billion with a stricter 70 ppb. As a result, there will appear to be an increase in orange and red days, but really these indicate that the stricter policies are filtering out the unhealthy air that would impact the most sensitive groups in the population. “This move was made because the former standard was not strong enough to protect public health,” Seneca says. “Combined, the results of the clinical studies and risk and exposure analyses show that a standard of 70 ppb will protect public health … [it] essentially eliminates exposures that have been shown to cause adverse health effects [and] protect[s] 99.5 percent of children from even single exposures to the ozone.”