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“State of the Air” report places metro area among top worst


The American Lung Association’s 2020 “State of the Air” report found the Philadelphia-Reading-Camden, PA-NJ-DE-MD metro area ranked as the 12th most polluted city in the nation for its year-round average levels of fine particle pollution and as the 23rd most polluted for days with high levels of ozone smog.

And Bucks County had the area’s worst smog performance, with 33 days of high ozone during the report period.

Ozone and particle pollution are the nation’s most widespread air pollutants, and both can be deadly. In contrast, the report found that Philadelphia’s measure for daily spikes of fine particle pollution improved to its best level ever.

The Lung Association’s annual air quality report card tracks Americans’ exposure to unhealthful levels of particle pollution and ozone during a three-year period. Once again, the report found that nearly half of all Americans were exposed to unhealthy air in 2016-2018. In the four-state, 16-county metro area, ozone air pollution placed the health of some 7.2 million residents at risk, including those who are more vulnerable to the effects of air pollution such as older adults, children and those with a lung disease.

“This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Clean Air Act, which has been responsible for dramatic improvements in air quality. However, Philadelphia area residents continue to breathe some of the most unhealthy air in the country, driven by emissions from vehicles and industrial sources, both locally generated as well as from upwind, placing their health and lives at risk,” said American Lung Association Director of Environmental Health Kevin Stewart. “Furthermore, with nearly half of Americans breathing unhealthy air, our “State of the Air” report shows that nationally, because of climate change, the nation is heading in the wrong direction when it comes to protecting public health.”

Each year the report card analyzes effects of the two most widespread outdoor air pollutants, ozone pollution, “smog,” and particle pollution, “soot.” The report analyzes particle pollution in two ways: through average annual particle pollution levels and short-term spikes in particle pollution.

This year’s report covers 2016, 2017 and 2018, the years with the most recent quality-assured data available collected by states, cities, counties, tribes and federal agencies. Notably, those three years were among the five hottest recorded in global history. Rising temperatures lead to increased levels of ozone pollution.

Changing climate patterns also fuel wildfires and their dangerous smoke, which increase particle pollution. Ozone and particle pollution threaten everyone, especially children, older adults and people living with a lung disease. Although this report does not cover data from 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the impact of air pollution on lung health is of heightened concern.

Compared to the 2019 report, Philadelphia experienced fewer unhealthy days of high ozone in this year’s report.

“Ozone pollution can harm even healthy people, but is particularly dangerous for children, older adults and people with lung diseases such as COPD or asthma,” said Stewart. “Breathing ozone-polluted air can trigger asthma attacks in both adults and children with asthma, which can land them in the doctor’s office or the emergency room. Ozone can even shorten people’s lives.”

This report documents that warmer temperatures brought by climate change are making ozone more likely to form and harder to clean up. Significantly more people suffered unhealthy ozone pollution in the 2020 report than in the last three “State of the Air” reports.

The following counties in the metro area all earned “F” grades for ozone pollution in this year’s report: New Castle, Del.; Cecil, Md.; Camden and Gloucester, N.J.; and all six of the Pennsylvania counties in the metro area: Berks, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery, and Philadelphia.

Bucks County had the area’s worst performance, with 33 days of high ozone during the report period.

“State of the Air” 2020 found that year-round particle pollution levels in Philadelphia were slightly worse than in last year’s report, even though the level still met the national standard for this pollutant. As a result, the metro area’s rank worsened from 18th worst in last year’s report to 12th worst in the United States in the 2020 report.

“Particle pollution can lodge deep in the lungs and can even enter the bloodstream. It can trigger asthma attacks, heart attacks and strokes and cause lung cancer,” said Stewart. Particle pollution comes from industry, coal-fired power plants, diesel emissions, wildfires and wood-burning devices.

“Year-round particle pollution levels had dropped in recent years thanks to the cleanup of coal-fired power plants and the retirement of old, dirty diesel engines. However, the increase we’ve seen nationally in particle pollution in this year’s report is a troubling reminder that we must increase our efforts to reduce this dangerous pollution,” said Stewart.

Our leaders, both here in the Delaware Valley and at the federal level, must take immediate, significant action to ward off climate change and other threats to the quality of the air we all breathe.”