Frequently Asked Questions

These are some of the most common questions we get. Click on the question to open up the answer.

If you have a question that isn’t answered below, please get in touch!

What does GASP do?

GASP is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization with a mission to advance healthy air and environmental justice in the Greater-Birmingham area. Our vision is a healthy, just, and sustainable Alabama for everyone who lives, works, learns, and worships here. We strive to reduce air pollution, to educate the public on the health risks associated with poor air quality and to encourage community leaders to serve as role models for clean air and clean energy development. Our work centers around four goals: 1) reducing air pollution, 2) securing environmental justice, 3) promoting clean, renewable energy, and 4) mitigating the effects of climate change in the Birmingham area. Our strategies are education, advocacy, collaboration, and organizing.

Is GASP a law firm? Can you represent me/my family/my community?

No, GASP is not a law firm and we cannot represent individual clients in civil or criminal matters. We utilize the power of the law to advance our strategic objectives, but that does not include private litigation. If you need legal help, please contact your attorney.

What is air pollution?
Pollution refers to substances that are released into natural environment that can cause harm. (That is, pollution by definition is detrimental to people, animals, plants, and ecosystems.) Air pollution refers to airborne particles that are released into the ambient air. Air pollution can result from burning fossil fuels, wildfires, volcanos, internal combustion engines (e.g., cars), windstorms, and so forth. Some air pollution is manmade, and some air pollution is caused naturally.
Isn’t air pollution a lot better than it used to be?
Air quality has improved significantly in the United States since the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970 and amendments in 1990. However, air pollution remains the single greatest environmental health risk factor in the world for premature death and disease. Air pollution ranks just behind high blood pressure, dietary risks, and smoking for the top health risks.
When it comes to air pollution, whose health is at risk?
Air pollution affects everyone. In fact, recent research found that air pollution caused by burning fossil fuels alone caused 8.7 million deaths in 2018.

Children, seniors, pregnant women, and people with heart and lung diseases are the most vulnerable to the devastating health effects of air pollution. Additionally, air pollution concentrations vary widely by community. Black, indigenous, and communities of color, as well as low-income communities, are exposed to disproportionately higher levels of air pollution. This means that air pollution isn’t just a health or environmental issue. It’s also a justice issue.

Is Birmingham’s air quality that bad?
The Birmingham metro has historically had some of the most polluted air in the United States. Though our air quality has improved, we still rank among the worst for ozone and particle pollution according to the American Lung Association’s annual State of the Air report. The Birmingham metro has worse air quality than peer cities like Memphis, Nashville, New Orleans, Louisville and Atlanta.
OK, maybe the air quality isn’t perfect but it's improving, right?
Yes, air quality overall continues to improve from its peaks in the middle of the 20th century. However, that’s not a given. For example, Birmingham experienced a drastic uptick in bad air quality days in 2016 — doubling the number from 2015. And the Trump Administration gutted many regulatory standards between 2017–2020. Progress is fragile and depends on continual improvement, which makes our mission all the more urgent and vital.
I looked up the current air quality where I’m at. It says, “Good.” Does that mean the air I’m breathing is healthy?
If you check air quality on airnow.gov, our website, or even your smart phone weather app, you’ll see what’s called the “Air Quality Index,” or AQI. The AQI is essentially a color-coded “score” of current air conditions in regions where there are air monitors that meet federal requirements. Values range from 0 to 500+.

The AQI tells you what the overall air quality is in a geographic area based on several pollutants: particulate matter (PM), ozone (O3), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2), and carbon monoxide (CO). The AQI does not tell you what the exact air quality is where you are.

How are the AQI colors determined?
Each individual pollutant has its own range based on the national ambient air quality standards, or NAAQS (pronounced “naks”). The Clean Air Act requires NAAQS to be reviewed every five years to ensure they’re based on the latest scientific information. The AQI’s color categories range from green (good) to maroon (hazardous).

See the AQI chart below for more detailed information.

I don’t see an AQI in my area. Why’s that?
Federal law requires metropolitan areas with a population of more than 350,000 to report the air quality index. Some areas with smaller populations may have monitors and report the AQI.
The health department says the plant near my home is “in compliance” with its permit. Does that mean there’s nothing to worry about?
Absolutely not. If a regulatory agency tells you that a facility is “in compliance,” this simply means that based on what they know, a plant is adhering to its air permit. It does not tell you whether or not air quality is good or bad at any given moment or if there is a long-term exposure risk in an area. Plants should be in compliance — that’s the bare minimum and it’s the law. But one plant’s compliance with a permit is not a public health standard or a determination of air quality.
If a plant is adhering to its air permit, doesn’t that mean it’s in compliance with state and federal air pollution regulations.
No. Just because a facility adheres to its permits does not necessarily mean that the facility is in compliance with state and federal air pollution regulations. When regulators drop the ball, it’s very possible for air permits to be out-of-step with the Clean Air Act and other laws. That’s why we review permit applications and draft permits: to ensure that permits are in compliance with all relevant laws.
Wait, I thought I heard the EPA said Birmingham’s air quality was certified as good or “in compliance” with the Clean Air Act now.
The EPA does not “certify” cities or areas as having clean or anything comparable to that. A provision of the Clean Air Act allows for areas to be designated as “nonattainment,” or in violation with the NAAQS. Think of this as a being written up by your boss and being put on a performance improvement plan. Birmingham for many years was a non-attainment area. In 2013, Birmingham was designated as having achieved attainment — meaning the region is currently in compliance with federal ambient air standards.
OK, so the health department told me all of the plants in my area are in compliance AND Birmingham is in attainment with NAAQS. Does that mean I shouldn’t be concerned about air pollution at all?
Nope! One does depend on another — especially when it comes to your health. Every plant in your area could adhere to its permits and still contribute to poor air quality for you and your community. “Cumulative impact” is the concept that when combined, emissions from multiple sources add up to a much bigger total exposure risk than any single source on its own. In other words, if you add up the pollution from all the plants around you, the risks are substantially increased. And if you live in an area with multiple plants that emit pollution, your health is much more likely to be affected in the short- and long-term.
Besides manufacturing plants and power plants, are there other sources of air pollution I should be aware of?
Definitely! Those are the types of pollution GASP is focused on. However, air pollution comes from many sources. If you live in an area with lots of traffic, this can lead to higher levels of air pollution. Cars, trucks, trains, and planes all contribute significantly to pollution. Another major source of air pollution is construction and demolition. These projects tend to create lots of dust, or particle pollution. If you live in an area where wildfires are common, please be aware of advisories. Wildfires create large amounts of particle pollution as well as toxic pollution and exposure is hazardous to human health.
What exactly are the health effects of breathing air pollution?
Air pollution is a broad term. When thinking about health effects, we have to think about each pollutant individually and then cumulatively.

Particle pollution (PM) is one of the most common pollutants and breathing it can cause very serious problems, such as asthma attacks, heart attacks, and strokes.

Exposure to ground-level ozone, another common pollutant, can result in breathing difficulty, asthma attacks, and lung damage. Breathing ozone or PM can even result in death.

There is another category of pollutants called Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPs) — also known as “air toxics.” These include 187 chemicals and heavy metals (e.g., benzene) that are known or suspected to cause cancer and other very serious health effects.

What air pollutants are covered by the NAAQS and HAPS?
The NAAQS cover ambient air concentrations of the following pollutants: carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2), particulate matter (PM), ground-level ozone (O3), and lead.

The Clean Air Act has different “technology-based” requirements for HAPs called “National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants” (NESHAP). Under these technology-based requirements, facilities must Install equipment and follow work practices to reduced HAP emissions. The requirements for controlling HAPs are based on particular categories of sources, and not all categories are covered.

HAPs from power plants are regulated under a rule called the “Mercury and Air Toxics Standards,” or MATS.

There’s a company in my neighborhood that keeps polluting the air, but it doesn’t have an air permit. What can I do about it?
If a business in your community is polluting the air, you need to alert the local authorities to let them know. Air permits aren’t the only regulations businesses have to abide by! Pollution could come from open burning of waste, an accidental fire, welding, or something else. If you can see and/or smell pollution, it’s a potential problem. In Jefferson County, whether or not a facility has an air permit, you should notify the Department of Health by calling (205) 930-1276. You can also contact EPA to report suspected violations.
What do the different AQI colors mean?
The AQI’s color categories range from green (good) to maroon (hazardous).
AQI Color
Green
Level of Concern
Good
AQI Value
0 to 50
Description of Air Quality
Air quality is satisfactory, and air pollution poses little or no risk.
AQI Color
Yellow
Level of Concern
Moderate
AQI Value
51 to 100
Description of Air Quality
Air quality is acceptable. However, there may be a risk for some people, particularly those who are unusually sensitive to air pollution.
AQI Color
Orange
Level of Concern
Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups
AQI Value
101 to 150
Description of Air Quality
Members of sensitive groups may experience health effects. The general public is less likely to be affected.
AQI Color
Red
Level of Concern
Unhealthy
AQI Value
151 to 200
Description of Air Quality
Some members of the general public may experience health effects; members of sensitive groups may experience more serious health effects.
AQI Color
Purple
Level of Concern
Very Unhealthy
AQI Value
201 to 300
Description of Air Quality
Health alert: The risk of health effects is increased for everyone.
AQI Color
Maroon
Level of Concern
Hazardous
AQI Value
301+
Description of Air Quality
Health warning of emergency conditions: everyone is more likely to be affected.