Earth Healing The Health of the Bluegrass Is The Triangle Really Golden

The Health of the Bluegrass:
Is the Triangle Really Green?

Published by Earth Healing in cooperation with
EcoPerspectives, a project of Earth Island Institute



Air Pollution

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calculates the Air Quality Index for five pollutants:  ground level ozone, particle pollution, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide.  The two most widespread types of pollution in Kentucky are ozone and particle pollution; and the largest sources of ozone and particle pollution in Kentucky, according to the   Kentucky Division for Air Quality, are power plants, industry, and open burning, including illegal backyard burning and wildfires in natural areas. In the Bluegrass, in particular, cars and trucks, which cause more than 25% of the air pollution in the United States (1), must be near the top of the list of causes, and perhaps ahead of open burning. 

Ozone is formed by a chemical reaction between nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds in the presence of sunlight. It is considered to be good or bad depending on where it is.  The ozone in the upper atmosphere, protects the earth from harmful rays from the sun and is therefore considered to be good.  Ground level ozone irritates the lungs of humans and also may adversely affect plants and animals. It is thus considered to be bad. 

Particle pollution consists of microscopic particles in the air.  The most dangerous are fine particles, less than 2.5 microns in diameter.

Other air pollutants of particular concern in the Bluegrass are carbon dioxide and toxics.    Carbon dioxide was considered in the section on Energy (along with the toxics sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides). 


In 2008 the American Lung Association rated thirty-four Kentucky counties on high ozone days and/or high particle pollution days (based on EPA standards) in 2004, 2005, and 2006.   In the Bluegrass, Campbell and Oldham Counties received a “D” each.  Jefferson and Kenton Counties each received a “C.”  Other counties rated received an “A” or a “B.”  (Not all  counties collected sufficient data for a grade.) The American Lung Association notes that several counties in the Bluegrass region improved their grade for ozone, but that Oldham County, which is immediately north of Jefferson County, went in the wrong direction, from a “C” in the Lung Association’s 2007 report) to a “D” (2).

March 12, 2008 the US EPA made the primary standard for ground level ozone 11% more restrictive than it was previously.  The standard is now “0.075 ppm 8 hour average.”  In other words, for levels above an average of 0.075 parts per million (75 parts per billion) in an eight-hour period, the EPA issues an orange or higher alert.  Alerts are color coded and orange means that the amount of ozone in the air can harm people in the sensitive population, which includes healthy adults who work outdoors.  The stricter standard means that counties that were in conformity with EPA regulations may find themselves out of conformity.  In fact, based on monitoring for the past three years, nineteen counties in Kentucky, including those in the Cincinnati, Louisville, and Lexington areas, would have been out of compliance in those years if the standard had then been 75 parts per billion. (The American Lung Association report used the old standard.)  Moreover, according to EPA’s own science advisors, whom EPA ignored in setting its new standard, a standard much stricter than the new 75 parts per billion is actually needed to protect public health (3).  Thus the Cincinnati, Louisville and Lexington metropolitan areas are not protecting the public adequately in regard to ozone. 

Particle pollution

For fine particle pollution days, Jefferson County was the only “failing” county among the Bluegrass counties that the American Lung Association rated.   It received a “fail” in the categories of twenty-four hour pollution and that of annual pollution.  Louisville, in fact, appears in the association’s list of the fifty cities in the United States with the greatest year-round particle pollution.  There it moved from 22nd  worst (in the Lung Association’s 2007 report) to 18th  worst, although it actually decreased its pollution somewhat.  The reason for the rise in rank in comparison with other cities was that other cities made greater improvements. 


In 2002 the US EPA Region 4 published an Air Toxics Relative Risk Screening Analysis on the risk to public health from air pollution in each of the 736 counties that make up its the region.  The analysis considered potential health impacts (based on data from 1996 and 1999), total population density, and the density of sensitive subpopulations.  Overall, Jefferson County ranked highest in the threat to health of all the counties in the region. In other words, the air “had the highest potential risk for adverse effects of all of the counties in the eight southeastern states” (4).  Five out of six other counties in the top fifty were also in the Bluegrass area:  Kenton (17th), Campbell (23rd), Fayette (27th), Boyd (35th) and Boone (48th) (5).  The primary reason for Louisville’s high ranking was the presence of toxic chemicals in the air.  The majority of these toxics were released by the chemical plants in what is commonly known as Rubbertown in west Louisville.  (Some of the chemical toxics contribute to particle pollution, but some are strictly gases.)  As a result of the EPA assessment and other studies and after extensive consultation with the public, the Louisville Metro Air Pollution Control Board in 2005 implemented a Strategic Toxic Air Reduction program (STAR) to assess and address toxic air emissions and improve air quality.  The program has three key components.  The first establishes the overall methods for determining risk and the general duty not to omit toxic air contaminants in a quantity or duration that is harmful.  The second regulates the industrial operations that are responsible for much of the pollution.  The third covers other, smaller sources of pollution, such as dry cleaners, cars and trucks, locomotives and airplanes.

The program is already showing dramatic results, as industrial companies are beginning to apply technical pollution controls; or, unwilling or unable to improve, are leaving the city (DuPont Performance Elastomers, for example) or reducing the scope of their operations there (Rohm and Haas, among other).   Nevertheless, the air in Louisville is still not healthy and it is not expected to be so until at least 2011, the year by which companies must lower their toxic emissions or prove that they are using the best available technology to lower emissions (6). The chemical of greatest concern in Louisville (of eighteen that have been proven to exceed the health risk goal) is butadiene, which causes cancer.  In 2003, three chemical plants in Rubbertown released in total 143,548 pounds of butadiene.  In 2006, according to the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory, they released in total 22,780 pounds (8360 pounds from the American Synthetic Rubber Plant, which achieved an 84% reduction from 141,000 pounds in 2001; 810 pounds from Rohm and Haas; and 13,610 pounds from Zeon Chemicals) (7). 

Power plants that burn coal release a wide variety of hazardous materials into the air, as indicated in the section on energy.  The toxic substances that in 2006 the Ghent power station spread across the Bluegrass and, in some cases, far beyond included ammonia (3957 pounds), hydrochloric acid in the form of aerosols (5,223,000 pounds), hydrogen fluoride (574,800 pounds), lead compounds (1232 pounds), sulfuric acid in the form of aerosols (1,575,000 pounds), and zinc compounds (4452 pounds) (8).  

                                                            --Mary Byrd Davis

1.  Kentucky Division for Air Quality, “Celebrate National Air Quality Awareness Week: ‘What Affects My Air,’” [Press Release], May 6, 2008, available on the Internet at

2. American Lung Association, State of the Air: 2008, available on the Internet at

3.   James Bruggers, “EPA Tightens Standards for Ozone,” Courier-Journal, March 13, 2008, p. 1A. 

4. Metro Louisville, Strategic Toxic Air Reduction Program, Why do we need this program?, available on the Internet at

5. The Kentucky Division for Air Quality summarizes the EPA’s report in“Air Toxics,” available on the Internet at

6.  Metro Louisville, STAR Regulation 5.21, General Information, available on the Internet at

7.  James Bruggers, “Rubbertown Still Hot Spot for Toxic Air,” Courier-Journal, November 29, 2006, p. 1A; and James Bruggers, “Emissions of Toxic Chemical Fall,” Courier-Journal, Feb 22, 2008, p. 1D.

8. Division of Specialized Information Services, National Library of Medicine, Toxmap, available online at .


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