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Steady improvement in air quality still leaves Erie Niagara with work to do

If the latest report on air quality by the American Lung Association is any indication, Erie and Niagara county residents are breathing a little easier these days. But before inhaling too deeply, remember there is much work to be done.

Erie County has done especially well on the association’s annual “State of the Air” report, and not for the first time. But it is the first time the county has received an A grade for short-term pollution from hazardous soot emitted from vehicles, power plants and fires.

Now, take a breath.

The 16th annual report covers the three-year period ending in 2013. The conclusion about short-term pollution – especially the fact that there were no days here particle air pollution was high – has to bring some relief to anyone living, working or playing in the Buffalo region. The Lung Association’s declaration that the region is moving in the right direction is reason for hope. Then there’s the rest.

Much of the good “air” news can be attributed to the fact that operations have been reduced at the coal-powered Huntley electric generating plant. And Erin Heaney, director of the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York, warned that chemicals such as benzene, formaldehyde and other carcinogens are not included in the report. But the region’s trends tend to mirror the mixed results of the nation, with four in 10 Americans living in unhealthy air.

Keep breathing. There’s more to consider, especially ozone.

Both Erie and Niagara counties showed barely acceptable ozone levels, receiving a disappointing D rating. Chautauqua County once again failed, as it did in other categories, but it was feeling the effects of a coal-fired power plant in Dunkirk along with ozone reaching the county from other regions.

Weather plays a big role in ozone levels, and it turns out that places with higher levels typically have warmer temperatures, more sunshine and fewer days of rain. And that is why one expert at the Lung Association says climate change increasingly impacts air quality.

No matter where a person stands politically on the subject of climate change, it is difficult to argue against the benefits of reduced emissions. Some of that comes from using public transportation or walking or bicycling instead of taking the car. But also important are government efforts to shift power plants from coal to natural gas – the Dunkirk plant is being converted – and to promote renewable energy.

Clean air is a government responsibility. Regulations must be enforced, not weakened.

Then we can all breathe, deeply and safely.