EPA site makes smog data clearly accessible

Summer may be the season for sunshine and sandals, but it's also the season for smog. If you want to know more about this form of air pollution that creates haze and makes it hard to breathe, you can find a wealth of information on the Environmental Protection Agency's AirNow World Wide Web site (www.epa.gov/airnow).

The easy-to-navigate site, filled with bright graphics, offers animated maps, health information, pollution-prevention ideas and links to real-time air-quality data from 30 states. Last month, the start of the five-month smog season, the EPA added several new features, including color-coded ozone forecasts for 73 metropolitan areas and a set of publications about the topic.

The site, which got 2 million hits last year, caters to the general public as well as researchers. "This was funded as part of the community right-to-know [initiative]," said Chet Wayland, who manages the site as group leader for the EPA's Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards Information Transfer Group, referring to an agency policy to make its data more accessible.

"All this data has always been available," he added, but the data's collection and distribution were never automated until AirNow was launched last year.

The home page offers visitors multiple entry points. Four pictorial graphics guide users to current maps, forecasts, health information and real-time data. Below those graphics are links to map archives, pollution-prevention ideas, publications and a "Web cam" from the National Park Service that shows current smog conditions in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Along the side of the page are links to databases, regulations and other, more technical, information.

Not sure what ozone is and when it's harmful? Choose "Publications" and then "Ozone: Good Up High, Bad Nearby" for a primer on the topic.

If you want to know how healthy the air is where you are, click on "Ozone Forecasts" for a chart of metro-area smog predictions. On June 1, forecasts for several East Coast cities, from Hartford, Conn., to Baltimore, were coded orange - conditions in which people with respiratory problems, as well as active adults and children, are advised to limit their outdoor activities. Conditions were labeled green, for "good," in Chicago and Gary, Ind.

Get animated maps by clicking on "Today's Ozone Maps." Next, choose the region you want to see from the map of the United States and then select a map from the dialog box. A bright green map displays patches of ozone changing color and shape as smog levels change over time. This part of the site is under construction, so not all maps advertised are available.

If you want to crunch data yourself, backtrack two clicks to the main U.S. map, titled "1999 Ozone Mapping Project," and scroll down for links to the North Carolina Supercomputing Center's Ozone Mapping System and instructions for downloading its software. For the data itself, click on "AIRSData" from the AirNow home page to get reports from the EPA's Aerometric Information Retrieval System.

Robert Kellam, associate director with the EPA's Information Transfer and Program Integration Division, said the site is popular with school groups, which use the information for science projects, and with meteorologists. Next year, the agency hopes to include ozone data from every state and to add data about "particulate matter," which is the form of air pollution most common during winter.

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