For more than a dozen years Madison County has received failing grades in air quality from the American Lung Association. The county received an "F" again this year in particle pollution, a solid pollutant much smaller than the width of a human hair that aggravates the lungs and heart.

It's not just Madison County that's struggling with air quality however, it's the entire St. Louis region, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Since the mid-1990s, a seven-county, bi-state region of the St. Louis metro area has been considered "non-attainment," meaning it doesn't meet national air quality standards.

Though Madison County is still working toward passing marks for ozone, lead and particle pollution from the national EPA, significant progress has been made in reducing emissions.

"It's showing improvement even though the standards are more stringent," said Kimm Biggs, project coordinator for the Illinois EPA Bureau of Air.

Tightening federal standards for pollution-producing plants and community awareness are leading the way to the decrease however, the county's history as an industrial powerhouse and geographic location make cleaning the air an uphill battle.

Where we're at

Currently, Madison County does not meet EPA standards for lead, particulate matter 2.5 (PM2.5), and 8-hour ozone levels. The region isn't alone. Twelve other Illinois counties are either partially or entirely exceeding EPA standards for pollution, according to the EPA's historical non-attainment status

About every five years the EPA tightens air quality standards, lowering allowable pollutant levels.

"The lower you make that standard, the more it is going to appear it's getting worse when actually it's just the standard moving," explained Chris Price, Illinois EPA air monitoring data unit manager.

Keeping in line with federal requirements, Madison County has seen a dramatic decrease in levels of ozone and specifically particulate matter, which is measured at 2.5 and 10 micrometers.

While Granite City topped the state in annual PM10 levels in the Illinois EPA's most recent air quality report, the levels were 30 percent less than a decade ago, according to 2010 data. The PM10 annual average for 2010 did not exceed national standards. County-wide PM2.5 exceedances for a 24-period went from 22 from 2004-2007 to six from 2008-2011, Price said. For the same time period, county ozone exceedances went from 64 to 34, he said.

"It's a success story. Things are noticeable cleaner compared to earlier in the past decade," said Jay Turner, a professor of engineering at Washington University in St. Louis. Turner is also a consultant to the Metro East Citizens Air Project, a University of Illinois program spreading community air quality awareness and studying air quality in the Metro East.

That said, Turner clarified, industrial contributions to Madison County's air can't be ignored and the cleanup is far from over.

Work in progress

Madison County is home to eight of the 10 leading perpetrators of particle pollution in the Metro East, according to a 2008 EPA emissions survey: U.S. Steel, American Colloid Co., and Amsted Rail Co. Inc. in Granite City; Magnesium Elektron North America in Madison; GBC Metals LLC and Alton Steel Inc. in Alton; and ConocoPhillips Co. and Dynergy Midwest Generation Inc. in Wood River.

The companies produce anywhere from 10 to 1,000 tons of PM2.5 emissions annually. Industrial pollution in Madison County is undeniable, Funk said, but so is the plants' economic value. They employ thousands in the region.

To keep industry alive and in check, the EPA has increasingly tightened emissions standards, requiring companies to stay below national standards or risk losing operating permits.

Last month U.S. Steel submitted an application to the EPA to move forward with constructing a new filtration system to help reduce PM2.5 emissions.

Thanks to a recent tightening of sulfur dioxide emissions, the Metro East will get some new analysis of the pollutant that has not been monitored by the EPA in area. The allowable levels of sulfur dioxide, a gas that aggravates respiratory conditions, were nearly cut in half.

"It predominantly comes from steel manufacturing," said Amy Funk, project coordinator for the Metro East Citizens Air Project. Other industries also contribute to the levels of sulfur dioxide. In January the project set up 25 sulfur dioxide monitors throughout the area. Project officials will collect data every other month for a week until December.

"It does look like there are hot spot areas from the three months of data we have" Funk said, stressing that the data will not determine if the region meets national standards.

Besides national regulations, municipalities have stepped up to the plate in reducing community emissions — specifically from vehicles.

"Many cities have been looking at efficiency to get conversations started with their staff about idling," Funk said. Discouraging idling in city-owned vehicles can save of fuel costs and cut down on emissions that lead to ozone, she said. MECAP partnered with area schools to post signs against idling, and is working with organizations like Ridefinders and Madison County Transit to encourage carpooling and use of public transportation to cut down on the number of cars in a heavily commuter community.

"Nature of the beast"

Madison County's location at the doorstep to a metropolis and access to the Mississippi River has long made it a valuable spot. Today however, it may be causing the area to hit a wall when it comes to achieving clean air.

Areas like Granite City and parts of Collinsville, settled in a river bottom, are prone to higher levels of air pollution because of "intense air stagnation," Turner said.

"These are going to last longer in the Cahokia Bottom than in Missouri," he said. Hot summer days, much like the area experienced last week, are perfect conditions for "cooking" ozone, a pollutant created by vehicle emissions and industry.

"On these hot days the emissions go up into the atmosphere and interact with the oxygen in the air and create high smog levels," Funk said.

Southerly winds during the summer push polluted air into northern communities, which is why places like Maryville register for higher levels of pollution, Turner said. Even as regulations tighten around air control, pollutants in the area are likely to remain higher in the Metro East simply because of its location.

"It's just the nature of the beast," he said.

Contact reporter Sarah Baraba at 618-344-0264, ext. 126

*This story has been edited to correct the affiliation of the Metro East Citizens Air project, and to clarify that multiple industries contribute to high sulfur dioxide levels in the area.