By Pamela Grundy, Co-Manager, Clean Air for Kids
Last week, I had the pleasure of traveling from Charlotte to Raleigh to start the expansion of our Clean Air for Kids program.
For the past five years, Clean Air for Kids has built ozone gardens and presented clean air programs in schools and other venues around Mecklenburg County. We’ve worked to help students and families learn about the dangers of ozone and fine particle pollution, and about steps they can take to protect themselves and their communities from dirty air. Now we’re going statewide.
Ground-level ozone is a stealth pollutant – unlike particle pollution it can’t be seen or smelled. But it’s one of the major sources of air pollution in our area. It harms humans, animals and plants. It does more damage to plants than all other airborne pollutants put together.
Clean Air for Kids uses ozone gardens to illustrate the damage caused by ground-level ozone. On certain plants, known as “bioindicators,” high ozone levels kill cells in a distinctive pattern. It’s easy to spot if you know what to look for.
History in the Ground
I stopped first at the North Carolina Executive Mansion, which has housed governors and their families for more than a century. The ornate brick structure towers gracefully over a landscape that bears the layered marks of age – the remnants of generation upon generation of garden projects and enthusiasms, shaped by designers’ visions, landscapers’ hands and the persistent work of nature. Lawns stretch beneath tall, spreading trees; ivy scrambles over walls of handmade brick; ancient camellia bushes show off their winter blooms. Roses await their summer glory.
I was there to meet with North Carolina First Lady Kristin Cooper, and to look for a good ozone garden spot. Mrs. Cooper has already made her mark on the Executive Mansion grounds. She loves birds, butterflies and wildlife, and in 2017 she partnered with Audubon North Carolina to fill the gardens with native plants, shrubs, and trees. An ozone garden will fit right in.
We toured the grounds with staff members and with Executive Mansion landscaper Charles Dixon, sizing up bed after potential bed. It was a chilly morning, but birds skittered through the trees, and spring didn’t seem too far away.
First Dog Ben trotted happily beside us, enjoying the breeze.
My second stop, Riverbend Middle School, could not have looked more different. The school, which opened last fall, sits at the edge of a massive new housing development still under construction. Its garden consists of eleven planting boxes on a patch of dormant grass.
Eighth-grade science teacher Rachael Polmanteer, who built the beds in partnership with the North Carolina Wildlife Federation’s Butterfly Highway program, was eager to get started. She gathered some students – Bridget Nyangena, Kaden Braye, Kaylee Griffith, and Brianna Caro-Sevilla – to put the cutleaf coneflower plants I’d brought into the soil.
The plants start small, but they’ll grow fast.
From summer into fall, Riverbend students will keep an eye on the Air Quality Index and monitor the plants for ozone damage. As the days heat up, ozone levels will start to rise. Ground-level ozone is created when the sun’s energy reacts with chemical emissions. Ozone season used to start on April 1. Now, climate change has pushed that date up to March 1.
The grand, old grounds of the Executive Mansion and the newly built beds at Riverbend Middle might seem to belong to different worlds. But the teenagers at Riverbend and the powerful folk who pass through the Executive Mansion’s halls all breathe the air. We all depend on the natural world around us. We all need to pay attention.
As ozone season starts, Clean Air for Kids be sharing more about our programs. Stay tuned!