WMCAC helps communities clear the air through voluntary efforts

The welcomed arrival of sunny weather is intertwined with the disquieting truth that people with heart and lung ailments find it harder to breath due to ground-level ozone emissions. 

Helping to reduce the stress is Grand Rapids-based West Michigan Clean Air Coalition (WMCAC). For 25 years it has worked to reduce poor air quality’s health risks through its unified partnerships that encourage community members to voluntarily help reduce air pollution.

WMCAC is a nonprofit that’s in partnership with businesses, academic entities, government agencies, industries and nonprofits in Kent, Ottawa, Muskegon, and Kalamazoo counties, according to Andrea Faber, coordinator for WMCAC. 

The Grand Valley Metro Council — "an alliance of governmental units in the West Michigan area that are appointed to plan for the growth and development, improve the quality of the community's life, and coordinate governmental services" — supports WMCAC by providing a staff member (Faber) to serve on the coalition. By doing this, GVMC directly helps the WMCAC accomplish its work of achieving cleaner air in the region through the education and promotion of voluntary emission reduction activities.

The WMCAC holds the distinction of rallying diverse groups of people and individual residents to make clean air possible.
WMCAC works in tandem with Carolyn Ulstad, transportation planner for the Macatawa Area Coordinating Council in Holland, and program manager Amy Haack from the West Michigan Shoreline Regional Development Commission in Muskegon, to help run the WMCAC by hosting meetings and formulating agendas. The three of them also are responsible for all outreach activities, which are guided by input from the WMCAC committee.
While many look forward to getting a suntan later this year, Faber says it spells trouble for others. 

In the ensuing warmer months, sunlight and heat “bake” pollutants motor vehicles, power plants, industry, and other sources belch out to form ground-level ozone – the main ingredient in smog.

Giving poor air quality a one-two punch is particulate matter, otherwise simply known as soot, which includes a mixture of pollutants, such as acids, organic chemicals, metals and soils, or dust particles. 

Faber clarifies there’s a difference between good and bad ozone. Upper atmosphere ozone protects people and the environment from the sun’s harmful UV rays, but ground level ozone is a potent gas that irritates and even damages lungs.

“The best beach days, warm and sunny, are the worst days for air quality,” Faber says. “It’s all about looking out for your neighbor who might have asthma and being cognizant of that. If one person waits to mow their lawn, that’s awesome, but if a whole community waits to mow their lawns, that’s a huge emission reduction.”

Andrea Faber, WMCAC coordinator.

Higher levels of ground-level ozone pose a somewhat easier solution than particular matter, according to Jim Haywood, air quality meteorologist for the state of Michigan’s Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) and a member of WMCAC’s steering committee.

“Ozone is pretty much an outside problem,” Haywood says. “If you have air conditioning you can survive indoors. For particulate matter, that stuff can get into your house much easier and in those cases, put a high efficiency air filter in your home and that will help a lot.”

A confluence of effective steps can collectively be taken to help sensitive groups breathe a sigh of relief, which include: driving less, riding The Rapid bus for no cost on Clean Air Action Days, shutting off the engine if idling for a minute or more; refueling vehicles after 6 p.m. because during the spring and summer, ozone levels are at their highest in the mid to late afternoon; stop when a gas pump clicks when refueling to prevent the release of gas fumes; postpone mowing after 6 p.m. or use an electric or push mower; use wood stoves and fireplaces sparklingly; recycle or compost trash rather than burn trash and yard waste; and teach students a greener way to live.

Taking these voluntary actions can decrease the number of Clean Air Action Days.

The WMCAC designates a Clean Air Action Day when weather conditions are likely to combine with pollution emissions to form high levels of ozone near the ground that may cause harmful health effects. Many factors contribute to a Clean Air Action Day, including high temperatures, light wind, no rain, and/or a wind direction blowing in polluted air from another area. A two-day forecast of air quality is available at wmcac.org/forecast/todays_forecast.

On those days, The Rapid public transportation system offers free rides on all its fixed bus routes. However, due to the coronavirus pandemic, The Rapid has implemented a reduced service schedule. Detailed information is available at ridetherapid.org/coronavirus.

“Basically we’re saying tomorrow is not going to be a good day for air quality,” Faber says. “Take proper precautions if you have sensitive children, are elderly or anybody with heart and lung disease and anybody who’s active outdoors. Those are our sensitive groups.”

The region’s air quality has improved over the years, according to Janet Vail, research scientist for the Grand Valley State University Annis Water Resources Institute and WMCAC’s chair.

“Overall the air quality has improved,” Vail says. “EGLE and DEQ puts out a report annually and there’s some good statistics on what’s going on in terms of air quality. It’s pretty much a downward trend in air pollutants.”

But sometimes poor air quality is out of West Michigan’s hands. A cross-lake transport of poor air quality contributes to residents’ breathing problems, adds Haywood, who points a finger at Chicago and northeast Indiana.

“What happens is when we get a southwest wind, it will pick up a lot of the pollutants that come out of Chicago and northeast Indiana from traffic, steel mills, you name it, and it creates a big cloud over West Michigan,” Haywood says. 

“Most of that stuff is going to be nitrogen dioxide or organic compounds or probably both and they are chemically reactive because of a photochemical reaction that is caused by the sun, which turns that stuff into ozone. The sun bounces it off of the water and shoots it back up again and cooks it again like a convection oven and then we get these intense plums of ozone out of Lake Michigan.”

Eventually “all that bad air” is transported across West Michigan.

“We don’t really have that problem on cloudy days,” says Haywood.

Vail says K-12 educators can find lesson plans, Clean Air Action Coloring books, and speakers available to teach air quality lessons on WMCAC’s website on its resources button. 

“Hopefully, if teachers are educated, they can convey that information to students and adjust their activities appropriately,” says Vail. “So the coalition’s messaging is, if you are a sensitive population you should be aware of what the situation is and what you can possibly do to mitigate health effects.”


Photos by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.

The Air Quality Index is a forecast that indicates unhealthy levels of air pollution, regarding a Clean Air Action Day to be declared. To receive this information via text messages or emails, go to www.enviroflash.info, or call the Clean Air Action hotline at 1-800-656-0663. The EGLE’s air quality index is http://www.deqmiair.org/ and AIRNow site.
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