Photo by Roy L. Williams.
Matt Lacke, meteorologist for the Jefferson County Department of Health, stands in front of an air quality monitoring station that records air pollution levels.
Just off U.S. 31 in central Hoover sits a facility that helps ensure Jefferson County’s air is safe to breathe.
The air monitoring station at 3425 Tamassee Lane is among eight strategically placed across Jefferson County to track ozone levels and microscopic particles that could endanger citizens’ health, said Matt Lacke, a meteorologist for the Jefferson County Department of Health.
Lacke said the Hoover air monitor is not currently out of compliance, but it has been in the past - just like the rest of the metro area. The summer months are a time when ozone levels and pollutant emissions in the air tend to be at the most unhealthy levels of the year.
“Air pollution in the Birmingham area affects every single community regardless of location,” Lacke said. “This is due to the combination of our emission sources [automobiles and industry], weather, and topography. Specifically for Hoover, there is the intersection of the 65 and 459 interstates, in which there is a large amount of traffic emissions.”
Lacke said the county tracks ozone levels and pollutants in the atmosphere from factories, automobiles, lawnmowers, construction equipment, and even summer wildflowers.
“It’s more of a problem in the summer months due to our hot, stagnant weather,” he said. “Ozone is formed from emission sources that set off gases that chemically react at higher levels in the summer.”
The gases worst for health come from two sources: nitrogen oxides from automobiles and factories, and volatile organic compounds released by chemicals in paints, pesticides, dry cleaners and plants, Lacke said.
“Our largest source of volatile organic compounds are vegetation – pine trees and plants like kudzu, and we have lots of those in the South. That’s why our ozone levels are so bad in the summer,” he said.
The Department of Health tracks hourly pollutant levels through its monitoring stations and can alert the public if they need to cut back emission levels.
He said the Tamassee Lane station tends to have high levels on the Fourth of July.
“It’s in a neighborhood, so much of that probably comes from fireworks,” Lacke said. “That is probably the biggest pollutant over a two to three-hour period on the Fourth.”
For many years, the Birmingham-Hoover metro was not in air quality compliance, a factor that hurt industry recruitment. In 2014, the region finally got into compliance as ozone and fine particle levels reached the lowest ever recorded, Lacke said.
“On top of those low readings, we are in compliance with EPA federal health-based standards,” he added. “It’s a combination of awareness by the community and industry taking steps to get in compliance.”
This compliance, he said, is something to celebrate.
As county health department meteorologist, Lacke has done forecasts on air quality based on air pollutant levels for nearly eight years. On the Jefferson County Health Department website, jcdh.org, the public can keep track of air safety through the Daily Air Quality Index Report.
Information on air pollution forecasts is also available on the health department’s Twitter account, @JCDH_AirQuality, or via phone recording at 933-0583.
Anyone with questions about air quality levels can call the Jefferson County Health Department’s Air and Radiation Protection Division at 930-1276.