TAMPA, Fla. - The American Lung Association recently gave Hillsborough County an "F" for ozone pollution. Some environmentalists claim Tampa's air is the worst in Florida, and could contribute to respiratory problems among children, the elderly, and those with heart and lung conditions. The I-Team looked into the air we breathe and the major contributors to pollution in Tampa.
At the Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology Associates of Tampa Bay clinic in Tampa, 7-year old Ashlin Riley underwent a regular checkup for her asthma. She's had asthma since she was a baby. It's under control now, her mother says, but at times her breathing was so strained she couldn't play outside with her friends.
"She just starts to continuously cough, and cough, and cough, and nothing that we give her except for inhalers stops the cough," said her mother, Monica Riley.
Ashlin's asthma can get worse on days when Tampa's air quality is poor. Tampa's air is considered good when compared to major cities nationwide, such as Los Angeles or Atlanta, but some environmentalists say Tampa has the unhealthiest air in Florida.
"It's the worst. We have the worst air quality," said Phil Compton of the Sierra Club Florida.
In a review of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection's 2011 Air Monitoring Report, the I-Team found Hillsborough County had 12 days in 2010 in which the air was deemed "unhealthy for sensitive groups". That's more than any other county in Florida. Pasco and Pinellas counties, by contrast, had 0 days of unhealthy air. Polk County had 1.
"Sensitive groups" actually include a significant chunk of the population: children, the elderly, and anyone with heart or lung problems.
On June 29 of this year, for example, around 10am, the air in the City of Tampa dropped from "good" to "moderate", according to data provided by the Environmental Protection Agency. At 2pm, the air in Polk County dropped from "moderate" to "unhealthy for sensitive groups", and remained that way until 7pm. That means that during those 5 hours, the air was considered unhealthy for children. The EPA recommends on days like that, parents should limit their child's time outdoors.
Larry George of the Air Resource Division of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection says his agency's own numbers from that report may be skewed. He believes Hillsborough County had fewer than 12 days of unhealthy air, but the number appears higher because one of the air quality monitors is in close proximity to a Mosaic fertilizer facility.
However, environmentalists believe there is cause for concern regarding Tampa's air. One cause for Tampa's pollution comes from the city's proximity to a coal plant: TECO's Big Bend plant at Apollo Beach.
However, experts in air quality agree that the plant has significantly reduced its emissions in recent years.
"Electric utilities are a major source of pollution, but TECO is a very well controlled plant and we continue to work with them to reduce their emissions," said Alain Watson of Hillsborough County's Environmental Protection Commission.
"In the past 10 years, we have invested $1.2 billion in state-of-the-art environmental improvements at our power plants, which have significantly reduced emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide – by more than 89 percent from 1998 levels," said Cherie Jacobs, spokesperson for Tampa Electric.
All of the experts we spoke with agree on the #1 factor negatively impacting Tampa's air: vehicle emissions.
"It's the fact that we don't have a choice except to drive our cars and trucks. The problem comes from our tailpipe emissions," Compton said.
With Tampa Bay being so spread out and mass transit options limited, people drive everywhere. Experts point out that Tampa doesn't have as much wind as other major Florida cities, so when smog gets in the air, it can stay there. Tampa's pollution is typically at its worst on hot days in late spring and summer when there is no rain.
"Having the worst air quality here means we have as many as a dozen days a year when it's really tough for kids to go outside, when it's dangerous, risky for seniors to walk around," Compton said.
On days when Tampa's air quality is poor, the EPA warns that children, the elderly, asthmatics, and others with heart or lung issues need to take extra precautions, including limiting their time outdoors.
"If they're having problems, stay indoors, put the air conditioning on, run their car with the air conditioning, and try to stay out of the pollution as much as they can," said Dr. Richard Lockey, Director of USF Health's Division of Allergy and Immunology.
The Sierra Club believes pollution can be reduced if officials in Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties work to expand mass transit options, including trains, bus routes, and making the cities more accessible to bicyclists.
"If we can give people a choice not to drive their car sometimes, some people will do that, and that will benefit us all because the air will get a lot cleaner and
healthier for everyone to breathe," said Compton.
It's easy to check the air quality in your neighborhood. The EPA posts a website with daily information on local air quality at airnow.gov. Once you're at the main page, type your zip code into the window near the top right of the page and you will see the current air quality. By looking at the AQI (air quality index), you can get a sense of how many pollutants are in the air. An AQI of 0-50 is considered "good", and 51-100 is "moderate". Anything from 101 or higher could be potentially unhealthy for vulnerable groups.