New Mexico has some of the most beautiful skies on our planet, thanks in part to our good air quality. Plants, animals, and humans all rely on having clean air to breathe. Protecting the quality of that air for a healthy environment, and alerting citizens to dangerous conditions play a critical role at NMED.
The affect of air pollutants on our health and ecosystems depends on the type of pollutant, how much is in the air, the amount of time exposed, and current health.
Air pollutants can also indirectly affect our health. Air pollutants deposited in lakes or rivers affect the quality of the water we drink and pollutants deposited on land or water enter the food chain and bio-accumulate in food we eat.
Some of the challenges to air quality in our state come from natural occurrences such as smoke from wildfires and dust storms. Others are brought about from human activities such as emissions from transportation, industry, and energy production.
NMED has developed programs around these and other air quality issues and works with communities, businesses, and other stakeholder groups to prevent the deterioration of air quality.
NMED is responsible for enforcing air quality standards of the federal Clean Air Act. Our regulatory authority comes from the state’s Environmental Improvement Act, Air Quality Control Act, and our State Implementation Plan (SIP) approved by EPA.
We implement this through our Air Quality Bureau’s programs for:
The 6 Common Air Pollutants (“criteria pollutants”) as identified by the Clean Air Act
Ground level ozone is not emitted directly into the air, but is created by chemical reactions between oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOC) in the presence of sunlight.
Emissions from industrial facilities and electric utilities, motor vehicle exhaust, gasoline vapors, and chemical solvents are some of the major sources of NOx and VOC.
Breathing ozone can trigger a variety of health problems including chest pain, coughing, throat irritation, and congestion. It can worsen bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma. Ground level ozone also can reduce lung function and inflame the linings of the lungs.
Ground level ozone can have harmful effects on sensitive vegetation and ecosystems. Plant species that are sensitive to ozone and potentially at an increased risk from exposure include trees such as black cherry, quaking aspen, ponderosa pine and cottonwood.
“Particulate matter,” also known as particle pollution or PM, is a complex mixture of extremely small particles and liquid droplets. Particle pollution is made up of a number of components, including acids (such as nitrates and sulfates), organic chemicals, metals, and soil or dust particles.
The size of particles is directly linked to their potential for causing health problems. EPA is concerned about particles that are 10 micrometers in diameter or smaller because those are the particles that generally pass through the throat and nose and enter the lungs.
Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless gas emitted from combustion processes. Nationally and, particularly in urban areas, the majority of CO emissions to ambient air come from mobile sources. CO can cause harmful health effects by reducing oxygen delivery to the body’s organs (like the heart and brain) and tissues.
Sources of carbon monoxide include:
Carbon monoxide from natural sources usually dissipates quickly over a large area, posing no threat to human health.
Nitrogen gas, normally relatively inert (unreactive), comprises about 80% of the air. At high temperatures and under certain other conditions it can combine with oxygen in the air, forming several different gaseous compounds collectively called oxides of nitrogen (NOx).
Nitric oxide (NO) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2 – the criteria pollutant) are the two most important. EPA’s National Ambient Air Quality Standard uses NO2 as the indicator for the larger group of nitrogen oxides.
Major sources of nitrogen oxides include:
In addition to contributing to the formation of ground-level ozone, and fine particle pollution, NO2 is linked with a number of adverse effects on the respiratory system.
Sulfur dioxide (SO2) is one of a group of highly reactive gasses known as “oxides of sulfur.”
Major sources of SO2 emissions are fossil fuel combustion at power plants (73%) and other industrial facilities (20%).
Smaller sources of SO2 emissions include industrial processes such as extracting metal from ore, and the burning of high sulfur containing fuels by locomotives, large ships, and non-road equipment.
Sulfur dioxide not only has a bad odor, it can irritate the respiratory system and is linked with a number of adverse effects on the respiratory system. Exposure to high concentrations for short periods of time can constrict the bronchi and increase mucous flow, making breathing difficult.
Lead (Pb) is a metal found naturally in the environment as well as in manufactured products.
The major sources of lead emissions have historically been from fuels in on-road motor vehicles (such as cars and trucks) and industrial sources. As a result of EPA’s regulatory efforts to remove lead from on-road motor vehicle gasoline, emissions of lead from the transportation sector dramatically declined by 95 percent between 1980 and 1999, and levels of lead in the air decreased by 94 percent between 1980 and 1999.
Today, the highest levels of lead in air are usually found near lead smelters. The major sources of lead emissions to the air today are ore and metals processing and piston-engine aircraft operating on leaded aviation gasoline.