The Charlotte Area NC Air Awareness program works with an eight-county region to encourage lifestyle changes that help improve air quality and reduce harmful emissions. Through environmental outreach and education efforts, the program teaches communities, businesses and schools about eco-friendly ways to conserve energy, discard trash and commute.

In the Mecklenburg County area specifically, the largest source of ozone pollution is from both cars and heavy-duty equipment. Air Awareness Coordinator Tara Onufrak explains how the Charlotte region didn't "meet the EPA's health-based standard for ground-level ozone pollution" for a long time. After years of work, the area achieved compliance with federal health-based standards in summer 2015. But a change in EPA standards a few months after presented the region with a new target goal. "Currently, we are on track to maintain our compliance with this new standard when designations are re-evaluated in 2017," says Tara.

Avoiding pollution with the help of local programs

Downtown CharlotteWhether she's giving presentations or building relationships with Business Coalition participants, Tara's role is to go out in the community and educate. In the Charlotte region, the decrease in ozone pollution has a lot to do with introducing local initiatives and regulatory actions, such as the NC Clean Smokestacks Act from 2002. Tara talks about one annual program she works closely with – the Clean Commute Challenge – that has helped reduce almost 150 tons of emissions total in the past two years.

Sponsored by the Charlotte Area NC Air Awareness program, the initiative encourages employees to opt into green commuting alternatives during summer months, such as carpooling or using public transportation. "Before we launch a challenge, I'll offer strategy sessions with Coalition members. I'll meet with the Site Coordinator, and we'll brainstorm ways to get their employees involved and excited about the program," she says. "We are continuously striving to improve the Air Awareness program and make it fun and easy to shift to a cleaner lifestyle."

Green tips from Tara

Electric Car in Charging Station.As an electric car driver, Tara understands that larger green practices are difficult to make. However, making those smaller changes in your daily routine can help create a sustainable future – especially for younger generations.

"There are a lot of reasons why sustainability is important to me: conservation, environmental health, and an economy that can thrive into the future. However, the number one reason is my son. I want to leave a world that is as good as or better than what I had for him and future generations. If that means making little sacrifices of convenience now, then that's something I'm willing to do. Making little changes here and there is pretty simple and once it's part of your routine, you don't notice that it's less convenient. It's now just something you do."

We asked Tara a few questions to learn more about the importance of bringing awareness to air quality and its health impacts.

Why is it important to protect our air quality?

Studies show that exposure to elevated levels of ozone pollution can have immediate effects on lung function and long-term exposure can have lasting effects, particularly for sensitive population groups, such as children, aging adults, anyone with respiratory disease and adults who are very active outdoors.

 The number one reason to protect air quality is to protect public health. However, when designated as a nonattainment region, additional regulations are imposed on the area, which can increase the cost of doing business in the region. Finally, poor air quality has broad environmental impacts and can potentially harm plants and animals or affect the water quality in a region in addition to the human health impacts.

What are some simple tips and tricks communities and businesses can use to help improve and bring awareness to air quality?

What will improve air quality varies region to region, depending on what problems the region faces. Here in the Charlotte area, where ground-level ozone pollution has been an issue and our leading source of that pollution is from vehicles, the best thing we can all do is drive less.

Something simple as trip chaining or avoiding idling can have a big impact if we all do these things. The drive-thru is a great example: Simply parking your car and going inside instead of idling in the drive-thru can save on fuel consumption as well as avoid a lot of unnecessary pollution.

The biggest thing is commuting. If we shared a ride once a week, it would make a big difference. Try carpooling, taking transit, biking, walking or telecommuting if you can. Employers that participate in the Air Awareness Business Coalition and engage their employees in discussions about air quality and how to improve it are really key to making a big impact in our community. When employees are encouraged to clean commute through workplace incentives (such as transit subsidies, preferred parking for carpoolers or telework options), they can help improve air quality and enjoy a boost in workplace morale.

To learn more about the Charlotte Area NC Air Awareness program, visit its site here.

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