Contractors--one cause of bad air in Dane County

Dust lofting from Findorff* site in downtown Madison.
Note concrete waste, right center.

The American Lung Association gave the Madison area** a failing grade for particle pollution in the air.  That's right, an "F."

Originally reported on WISC-TV, I decided to delve a little deeper.  It was hard to believe that little old Madison, the city of blue lakes, could be so polluted.

But it's true.  Here's what I found.

Madison's report card

The American Lung Association based their assessment on three years of data from the EPA. They rated counties across the USA based on ozone, short term (8 hrs) particle pollution, and long-term particle pollution. Madison got a "C" for ozone, while most of the Wisconsin counties along the lake got an "F," due to the way lake breezes trap the ozone along the shore.

But the flunking grade Madison received was based on the 8-hour particle levels.  The Lung Association created a score based both the severity of periods of particle pollution, and on the number of severe events.

Madison flunked because we had 16 "orange" days over a three year period.  An "orange" alert day is unhealthy for sensitive populations, which include the very young, elderly, and people with chronic disease--for example asthma and bronchitis.

That's right, Madison was on the list of the most polluted cities in the US (for short-term particle pollution).

How we compare

The Lung Association's website has a nifty widget allowing comparison of cities:

For 24-hour particle pollution, Madison ranked as the 24th most polluted out of 277 metropolitan areas.  We did better (but still poorly) on other measures.

Compared to the New York area, we both flunked on particle pollution.  NYC was slightly worse.

Compared to the Los Angeles area, again both flunked on particle pollution--but LA was much worse.

Health effects

Particle pollution ranges from coarse dust and pollen down to extremely microscopic particles--the smallest usually from combustion.

"Lower levels of ozone and particle pollution pose bigger threat than previously thought. A Canadian study showed that levels well below those considered safe for these pollutants triggered asthma attacks and increased the risk of emergency room visits and hospital admissions for children with asthma.6 Another study found that low levels of these pollutants increased the risk of hospital treatment for pneumonia and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease."  Source

There are large numbers of "sensitive people" in Dane County who could be harmed by particles in our air.  For example, out of 491,000 people in our area, 39,000 have adult asthma, 16,000 have chronic bronchitis, and 7,000 have emphysema.

I'm nearly 70 years old.  That puts me in a sensitive group--the elderly (Yikes!).

It's been windy in Madison the last few days--my voice has been so hoarse people have remarked about it.   I assumed it was the spring pollen--until I saw all the dust going airborne from construction sites downtown (see below).  Then, I noticed the air was yellow, even though there were no clouds.   It's possible my voice problems were caused by dust that turned the sky yellow.

As I write, I'm sneezing, with eyes moist.  The wind is 16 mph.  Less than a mile upwind, is a Findorff* Construction site on Science Drive, surrounded by residential neighborhoods.  I've followed this site over the last month or so.  It's been very sloppy--a large parking lot caked with mud, and muddy tire tracks heading off-site on residential streets.

Don't assume your red eyes are caused by pollen--you may be allergic to negligent construction firms.

Sources of particles in air

Without much industry in Madison, how did we get so polluted?

Generally speaking, air in the US moves from west to east, so the further east you go, the more polluted.

The particles come from combustion (power plants and autos), pollen, and dust.  I'm going to focus on the dust.

Surrounded by agricultural land, windy spring days can kick up lots of dust from bare fields.  Wisconsin has a lot of fine soil left over from glacial times.  Yet other Midwestern cities don't have as much particle pollution as Madison.

Construction sites are one of the last industries where pollution isn't well-controlled.  Enormous amounts of mud are washed or tracked out of construction sites.  Mud on streets soon becomes dust--coated with all kinds of noxious chemicals picked up from the streets.  Eventually, the dust rains out to become water pollution.

Madison has only weak enforcement for pollution from construction sites.  Inspection staff are overworked, and almost never penalize the contractors they supervise.  Some sites are inspected by Madison's Engineering Division.  Others on campus are under the control of the State's Dept. of Administration, and inspected by the DNR.   The State is inspecting itself.  More.

I"ll close with some photos of dust out of control at Findorff* Construction sites in downtown Madison, taken on 6/3 and 6/7 (click on a photo to enlarge it).

There are large areas of exposed fine soil at the Findorff site W of the Kohl Center, with no apparent controls for dust.  "Polymer" is a kind of glue or moistener that is supposed to be applied to sites like this to control dust.  I didn't see the telltale signs of polymer--and if it had been applied, it wasn't working.

Findorff* site just W. of the Kohl Center.  There is fine dust about 6" deep on top of the gravel pad.  This is where I saw large clouds of dust rising.  Note grey concrete waste dumped to right--concrete dust is very hazardous.  When it rains, the dust will stop, but the mud tracking will begin, starting a new cycle of mud-on-roads-to-dust.

Same location, just outside the gate.  Note thick, fine dust.  The gravel pad has become so buried in dust that it will be completely ineffective when it rains.  To be effective, gravel pads must be maintained, cleaned, or renewed.  I see few gravel pads at Findorff sites that are properly maintained.

Another Findorff entrance onto W. Dayton St., thick with dust.  This is source of the dust cloud in the first photo.  Concrete waste is also being dumped near this spot--perhaps that's why the dust is so grey.

On two corners along W. Johnson St., Findorff is mixing mortar.  You can see the mix is getting onto the sidewalk on a windy day.  The label on a bag says: "WARNING--INJURIOUS TO EYES, CAUSES SKIN IRRITATION....  In case of eye contact, immediately flush with water for at least 15 min...."  Close to the sidewalk, I found an empty bag of the stuff, untied and uncovered, with dust sifting out, rocking in the wind.  Workers are advised to wear face masks--what about all the students walking by?

Another dusty site nearby on Lake St.  Note leaking fluid, mixing with dust.  The white is likely concrete dust from cutting with a saw--very toxic to the lungs.

One of two hoppers on Lake St. containing mortar mix.  In the foreground, a nearly empty bag of mix is leaking dust.  This bag has the same hazard warning.

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Am I picking unfairly on Findorff?  Findorff is one of many construction firms in the area that often ignore the spirit if not letter of erosion control regulations.  I am focusing on Findorff because they are a large local firm, and claim to be a good citizen.  But other problem firms are Tri-North, Speedway, Landgraff, and Rawson.

Yet I have observed and documented many Findorff sites with erosion control problems.  In particular, Findorff often has inadequate gravel pads at their sites--and gravel pads are important in controlling dust on streets.  Today, I observed three different Findorff sites downtown that were creating dust hazard through sloppy practice or omissions.

While I hope Findorff will improve, these dust problems are the final responsibility of DNR.

My grandmother used to say: "What people do when they think no one is watching--that's the true test of character."

** Madison area:  The Lung Association broke down the data by several areas.  One was Dane County.  Another was "Madison-Baraboo."  For this short article, I'll just refer to "Madison."

Go here for an area-wide prediction of air quality.

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