For the first time, 20 counties in metro Atlanta, including Hall, have met federal standards for air quality established in 1997, the federal Environmental Protection Agency has determined.
Those standards regulate both ozone and fine particulate matter.
"The Atlanta region has reached a goal that should make every resident of metro Atlanta literally breathe a little easier," said Tad Leithead, Atlanta Regional Commission chairman. "Now, we can turn our attention to continuing to fight for even cleaner air for our children and grandchildren."
However, with particulate matter that is 2.5 micrometers in diameter or less, "the (state) Environmental Protection Division is submitting a maintenance plan ... that will stay in effect for the next 20 years," said Srikanth Yamala, transportation planning manager for the Gainesville-Hall Metropolitan Planning Organization.
That means the region will need "to make sure we are doing everything we can to keep those pollutants down" over that period, he said.
"So, nothing changes for us in how we ... produce our long-range transportation plans," Yamala said.
The MPO completed a plan last year looking at road projects through 2040. The plan must be amended every four years because of Hall's inclusion in the 20-county "nonattainment" area.
Area officials work with the ARC in that effort "because we don't have the staffing or the funding to do the air quality modeling," Yamala said.
Generally speaking, "we need to make sure that anytime we are adding more roadway miles, we're not increasing the pollutants to the air," he said.
Hall is not part of the 13-county area where motorists still must undergo an annual emissions test on their vehicle.
"Vehicle emissions are a major contributor to the increase in air pollution as metro Atlanta continues to grow," according to Georgia's Clean Air Force, which was created in 1996 as a result of the Clean Air Act and the Georgia legislature.
"There's not a lot changing with the law," said David D'Onofrio, ARC air quality planner. "There's going to be some possibilities with changing policies with point sources, like industry or power points, but not a whole lot of difference going on."
According to the EPA, people breathe more than 3,000 gallons of air each day.
"It's definitely good that the ozone levels are going down," Yamala said.
Part of that may because of "the down economy and people aren't traveling like they used to," he added.
The ARC hasn't studied the economy's effects on emissions.
"There has been a decade's worth of generally improving air quality in our region due to tighter control on emissions from cars and power plants, and better fuel economy," D'Onofrio said.
Polluted air causes irritation to eyes, noses and throats, and contributes to the almost 30 million Americans currently diagnosed with asthma, the ARC said in a press release last week.
"Along with effects on our respiratory health, pollutants in the air also affect crops, water and animals, affecting the food chain," the ARC said.
"Other pollutants make their way into the upper atmosphere, causing a thinning of the protective ozone layer, exposing people to higher risk of skin cancer and cataracts."
Dr. Ronald Beebe, allergist with The Longstreet Clinic in Gainesville, noted that asthma can be deadly.
"Everybody knows that asthma can be triggered by allergies ... but they don't realize that pollution, especially ground-level ozone, is a pollutant that triggers asthma attacks in almost every patient."