An airplane pulled out of Midway and over the Chicago Academy for Global Citizenship while a group of kids raised a yellow flag Tuesday to signify that the air is moderately clean, but not perfect. The flag-raising signaled the launch of a program created by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) and Illinois Partners for Clean Air to involve school kids in pollution monitoring.
The IEPA already monitors and color-codes a daily air quality index for the greater Chicago area, but IEPA director Lisa Bonnett says she wants to involve the public more closely in air quality monitoring.
“All of us can do our part,” Bonnett said, “and that’s how you really get those improvements to air quality.”
Although air pollution in the Chicago area has decreased in recent decades, Cook County this year got a failing grade for air quality from the American Lung Association. Meanwhile, says Bonnett, standards for air pollutants have been lowered as regulators discover or confirm new health risks from poor air quality.
Weather is the primary cause of daily fluctuations in air quality; hot, stagnant summer days mean Chicago’s smog sticks around in the area, and the direction of the wind or a storm can also lead to higher-air pollution days.
IEPA says Chicagoans can contribute to cleaner air over the long term by taking public transportation and switching to energy-efficient lighting and appliance options. And the USEPA is taking public comments on a new proposed regulation for vehicle emissions that would hold the whole country to a much tighter standard beginning in 2017.
For now, any school in the greater Chicago area can request air quality flags.
Lewis Wallace is a Pritzker Journalism Fellow at WBEZ. Follow him @lewispants.
Map of commercial and industrial air pollution sources
A USEPA map provides data from 2008 on yearly emissions of six key pollutants from major contributors like landfills, airports and manufacturing plants. Find out more about air pollution in your area on USEPA's website.
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