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Tampa Bay area smog ranks as second worst in state

Paradise isn't supposed to have smog.

The Tampa Bay area, though, is the second smoggiest metropolitan region in the Sunshine State, according to a report released this week by Environment Florida. Tops on the list was Pensacola.

The report came a day after Businessweek.com attempted to rank "America's Best Cities." Florida had two cities on the list. Tampa was No. 47. Jacksonville was No. 26. The publication cited "air quality" as one of the reasons Tampa didn't rank higher.

"It certainly is cause for concern," Phil Compton of the local chapter of the Sierra Club said. "This is a very serious thing."

Smog comes from burning gasoline and burning coal. Engines and smokestacks. Modern Florida was built for cars, of course, and the Big Bend power plant in Apollo Beach burns coal.

Smog is particularly dangerous for children and the elderly. Bad smog days can do to lungs what sunburns can do to skin. On the worst days, the Environment Florida report says, hospital visits for respiratory ailments go up, more adults miss work, more children miss school, and even healthy people experience a reduction in lung function.

Let's not be alarmist. Tampa's not good relative to Florida. But Florida's not bad relative to the rest of the country. There are more than 100 metropolitan areas with worse air. The worst five are in California. Also in the top 10 are Baltimore, Washington, Philadelphia, Houston and Atlanta. Florida is only No. 28 on the list of smoggiest states.

But the numbers say what they say.

The Environment Florida report ranks cities according to the number of days when the air was unhealthy to breathe. The Tampa Bay area last year had two of those days.

That's based on the current national standard. That standard was set in 2008 and is not at a level most scientists consider protective of public health. Bump up the threshold to where those scientists think it should be, the report says, and that number of unhealthy days shoots up to 10.

Just last week, according to Environment Florida, Hillsborough County had two days worthy of air pollution advisories. Smog is at its worst in the summer.

We're helped by the fact that our heat tends to come with rain. Rain knocks back some of the ozone that is the main ingredient of smog. But we're hurt by the fact that our public transportation is so substandard.

"Florida may not have industry like cities that we typically associate with smog," said Aliki Moncrief, Environment Florida's state director, "but we do have millions of cars."

"We really don't have a choice but to drive," the Sierra Club's Compton said. "Most of the pollution comes from every one of us."

What can we do? It's not like breathing is optional.

Paul Rolfe from Environment Florida says limit your outdoor activity on bad air days. Compton says check airnow.gov. Jessica Brady from AAA Club South in Tampa says consider now and in the not too distant future buying cars that use less gas or even no gas. Moncrief says write your lawmakers.

All of this comes in a week in which politicians in Washington are arguing over the value of environmental regulations. How much do they help? How much do they cost?

The Obama administration considered updating the 2008 standard but then decided earlier this month to push back the conversation to 2013. The House of Representatives is set to vote on Friday on a bill that would ease some of the existing smog pollution standards. Supporters of environmental regulations say they save lives. Critics say they kill jobs.

Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8751. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelkruse.

Tampa Bay area smog ranks as second worst in state 09/22/11 [Last modified: Friday, September 23, 2011 4:50pm]

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