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If you live in Fairfax County, the air you breathe may be putting your health at risk.

That message was part of the American Lung Association’s “State of the Air 2014” report which was released April 30.

The report gave Fairfax County an “F” for its number of high ozone days, and shows that Northern Virginia as a whole experienced more unhealthy days of high ozone compared to last year.

Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax, and Loudoun counties all received “F” grades for their numbers of high-ozone days.

Nationwide, the report states nearly half of all Americans – more than 147 million – live in counties where ozone or particle pollution levels make their air unhealthy to breathe.

The report states ozone is the most widespread air pollutant, created by the reaction of sunlight on emissions from vehicles and other sources. It says that when ozone is inhaled, it irritates the lungs, much in the way sunburn irritates skin. It can cause immediate health problems, and symptoms can continue for days. Ozone inhalation can cause wheezing, coughing, asthma attacks and even premature death for some.

“Children and teens, the elderly, people with breathing problems including asthma, people with cardiovascular diseases or diabetes, and adults who are active outdoors, including outdoor workers and outdoor exercisers, are all at higher risk,” said Dennis Alexander, regional executive director for the American Lung Association in Virginia. “They are the first to feel the effects of ozone and they need to take extra steps to protect themselves from harm.”

Although ozone levels in Fairfax County increased from last year, the report said Fairfax County registered lower levels of year-round particle pollution than it did last year.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, fine particle pollution is a complex mixture of extremely small particles and liquid droplets made up of a number of components, including nitrates and sulfates, organic chemicals, metals, and soil or dust particles. They can be the result of fire smoke, or gasses emitted from power plants, industrial emissions, and vehicle exhaust.

The size of particles is directly linked to their potential for causing health problems. The EPA says particles less than 10 micrometers in diameter or smaller generally flow through the throat and nose and into our lungs. Once inhaled, these particles can affect the heart and lungs and can potentially cause serious health issues.

“The air in Northern Virginia is certainly cleaner than when we started the ‘State of the Air’ report 15 years ago, thanks to the Clean Air Act,” Alexander said. “However, we still have work to do. Warmer temperatures make dangerous levels of ozone more likely, so we must set strong standards to protect our health from both ozone and the carbon pollution that causes climate change.”

Alexander suggests driving less, and using as little electricity as possible. “Also don’t burn wood or trash, and support measures in your community that cut down on air pollution,” he said.

“We agree with the American Lung Association that there’s more work to be done when it comes to improving air quality, and air pollution is a regional and national problem,” said Kambiz Agazi, Fairfax County’s environmental coordinator. “However, it’s important to understand that air pollution travels beyond city, county and state boundaries. On the worst air quality days in our region, up to 70 percent of the ozone can be attributed to sources outside the D.C. area. This is why the local and state governments in our region are working together. Fairfax County is actively working to reduce ozone and other pollutants, and the public plays an important role too. Cars are a major source for ozone, and you can help reduce pollution by taking public transit.”

gmacdonald@fairfaxtimes.com