One mom's clean air conundrum | CLT Blog
photo: James Willamorphoto: James Willamor

One mom’s clean air conundrum

Posted on 22 Sep 2011 by Jenifer Daniels

Fresh air and clean skies. This is what my family and I thought we were getting when we moved from a manufacturing city in the Midwest (Detroit, MI) toa  sleepy New South mecca (Charlotte, NC). We were in search of improved quality of life — who knew that once we arrived, we’d find some of the worst air quality in the states and this burgeoning city didn’t have a clue as to how to handle it?

Noted by the American Lung Association as one of smoggiest cities in the US (#10), and recently by the Environment North Carolina Research & Policy Center as 17th for the number of unhealthy air days in 2010, Charlotte also has the dubious distinction of being one of the fastest growing cities (adding 30.2% to the population since 2000) thanks to it’s ranking as a financial sector powerhouse and a former Money magazine 8th place selection of ‘Best places to Live and Launch’. But the population growth meant adding people and vehicles, and more space needed to accommodate both — hence, the explosion of Charlotte’s urban sprawl and the beginning of it’s air quality issues.

To discover just how Charlotte got into this predicament, I spoke with friend and Charlotte city councilman David Howard.  Councilman Howard believes that Charlotte’s air quality issues stem from a merging of a rural and urban population with no place for emissions from vehicles (and cows) to escape because of the city’s high humidity levels.

Howard also states that he and several of his colleagues question the validity of such rankings, but that they are attempting to tackle the issue of air quality head on.  Some observers believe that the city council claims to support these efforts in theory, yet many members continue to vote down initiatives like expanded public transit options (including more light rail and streetcars) that could jump start the process stating that they are a waste of tax money and resources.

In his additional role on the environmental committee, the councilman is asking Charlotte’s corporate citizens to follow the city’s lead. Charlotte City Council has expanded their push with multiple green initiatives, partnering with the corporate community, but it isn’t the corporate community that has to deal with the EPA.

According to the federal Clean Air Act, states are required to monitor air pollution levels and report the findings to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In 2004, The EPA found Mecklenburg County to be in violation of the Clean Air Act and asked city and county leaders to clean up their act before the 2010 deadline or risk losing federal highway construction funds.  However, in 2008 under the Bush Administration, the standards were toughened and now Mecklenburg County is under a sanctions clock; if it doesn’t make more progress towards reducing pollution, the region will risk the loss of federal highway funds.

In public, most city leaders have remained mum on whether or not Charlotte will be able to reverse its course; choosing instead to focus on issues that they feel they can wrap their proverbial minds around.  Councilman Howard stated that he doesn’t believe that the citizens fully comprehend the magnitude of the problem; therefore they chose to turn a blind eye.  But there are citizens like myself who are listening, and we are seeking solutions.

Charlotte Mommies member Lori Reed believes that local elected officials aren’t doing enough.  As a former quasi-government employee, Lori remembers a time when staff members were encouraged to help reduce their impact on ozone levels.  She notes that “The County tracked…and encouraged employees to work from home or use public transit on days where high levels of ozone were expected. Since the County stopped setting this example the rest of Charlotte seems to have followed suit.”

Many local mothers in the group openly wonder about who is to blame — city leaders for not making bigger strides, or themselves for choosing to live in a neighboring county for the appeal of a larger backyard. They do know that these issues are affecting their families but that they don’t know enough to become mobilized and that their ignorance will ultimately affect their children.

Lori also wonders what the impact air quality is on her young children.  “My youngest child needs breathing treatments every time she gets sick and my oldest child is borderline for having asthma.” she remarks.  “As a parent, I often wonder if living in Charlotte has caused these problems or exacerbated them.”

And Lori’s suspicions may be correct.

In May of this year, Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools hosted a well attended health fair as a part of their initiative, parent University, educating local parents about asthma in children.  Experts from Carlina Asthma & Allergy Center in Charlotte stated that the greatest rise is among black children and that there are 11,000 diagnosed cases of asthma in Charlotte Mecklenburg School’s system but added that there are far more students who remain undiagnosed.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, nearly 5 million asthma sufferers are under the age of 18 and asthma is the most common chronic childhood disease, affecting 1 out of every 20 children. While there is a common misconception that asthma is hereditary, the National Center for Environmental Health states that 50% of asthma cases are ‘allergic-asthma’, meaning that they are caused by symptoms that trigger the allergic reaction.

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases issued a report in 2001 stating that the ethnic differences among allergy sufferers are highly correlated with poverty, urban air quality, lack of education, and inadequate health care.

So that brings us full circle to the question of ‘what is Charlotte doing about it’s air quality for it’s youngest and most vulnerable residents’? From this mother’s view — not enough.

While most Charlotteans haven’t become galvanized around the idea of educating themselves (or their children) about our poor air quality, a few groups have taken the lead. Clean Air NC recently partnered with Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools to educate youth about air quality by planting ‘ozone gardens’ at four schools.  Clean Air NC hopes that by engaging the students in data collection process, their research influence federal researchers and their parents.

And we desperately need the education.

With Charlotte’s changing landscape, its new Census population numbers reflect those identifying themselves as African American (35%) or Latino (13%), with 31% of all households with residents age 18 and under.  Historically, these populations suffer from an educational gap, reduced access to personal transportation, and limited or inadequate health care options available to them.  Sadly, these populations are the most affected by our leader’s decisions to shuffle their feet.

It’s time to challenge our leaders; demanding accountability for our future and for our children’s.


  1. Dale Johnson 24 Sep 2011 at 2:21 AM

    This is “the sky is falling” from a naive person. Charlotte’s air is the cleanest its been in 20 years.

    Read this article to hear the other side of the issue.

    There are very few people in America for whom cleaner air would be a disaster. Unfortunately, most of them work for the Environmental Protection Agency. [AND FOR THE SIERRA CLUB! DJ )
    I knew something was up as I sat there shivering in a sweatshirt, reading about Mecklenburg’s first code orange ozone day this spring in the newspaper. We’d left a window open the night before and the house was freezing. This was no middle-of-the-summer smog situation. Code orange? The elderly and children should stay inside? Huh? Then I remembered. The EPA’s new air quality standards had taken effect.
    A sampling from LexisNexis shows that over the last few months, articles about the relatively large number of code orange and code red ozone days we have already racked up so far this year began running here and around the country. Like the stories in this news market, most failed to mention that the air here and across the nation has gotten so clean that the EPA had to raise its air quality standards to keep up. That kind of reporting will likely create the impression by the end of this summer that air quality is declining.”

    (read more)

  2. Dale Johnson 26 Sep 2011 at 11:55 AM

    The air is cleaner now than anytime in the last 20 years.

    For an alternate viewpoint read:

  3. jenifer daniels 11 Oct 2011 at 5:59 PM

    information from a conservative think tank hardly counts as definitive proof that the air is cleaner today than 20 years ago.

    20 years ago we could hardly fathom that man had a hand in the air that we breathed. 20 years ago we didn’t have sophisticated research that illustrated where we really were.

    the facts are clear: Charlotte is above the 75ppb that is required of the Clean Air Act and cases of allergic asthma are up in children; especially in children of color.

    clean air is a problem and we have the ability to affect it. there will always be two sides of a story and then there will be the truth.

    otherwise, why would Tara feel the need to respond to my post?