The American Lung Association’s “State of the Air 2014” report released on Tuesday found that two measures of particle pollution it tracks in the Scranton–Wilkes-Barre–Hazleton, PA, area have improved since last year’s report, consistent with the general nationwide trend, but that the area worsened for ozone levels.
The 2014 report, based on data for the three-year period of 2010-2012, showed that ozone pollution in the two monitored counties in the area increased slightly since last year’s report. Luzerne County, home to Wilkes-Barre and Hazleton, maintained its “B” grade, posting two “code orange” days – days with air quality unhealthful for sensitive groups. However, Lackawanna County, where Scranton is located, fell to a grade of “C,” recording four code orange days. Wyoming County is also part of the metro area, but it does not have air quality monitoring.
Lackawanna was the only county in the area recording data for fine particle pollution. It scored well for short-term (daily) particle pollution, earning a “B” for an unchanged annual weighted average of 0.7 days of poor air quality, and passing with an excellent and improved long-term average of 9.1 micrograms per cubic meter.
Despite the relatively small size of the changes, all ranks for this area worsened compared to those in last year’s report by about 15 places: For ozone, from 155th worst last year to 139th worst in the current report; for long-term particle pollution, from 147th to 132nd worst, and for daily particle pollution, from 92nd to 77th worst in the nation.
The metro area’s rankings faltered in part as the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) moved to include some smaller metro areas in larger ones. The overall number of metropolitan areas ranked in the report decreased to 217 this year from 277 previously.
Cleaner diesel engines comprise a larger portion of the on-road fleet, and power plants and industrial operations have replaced or eliminated older, more polluting equipment. These changes have resulted in less year-round particle pollution – sending it to its lowest level since the annual report began – and in the fewest unhealthful days ever for short-term particle pollution.
“Ozone and particle pollution, combined and separately, present real threats to Americans’ health and for decades worsened until the Clean Air Act began to reverse the tide,” said Kevin M. Stewart, director of environmental health for the American Lung Association of the Mid-Atlantic. “We track the levels of these hazards using data gleaned from state and local air pollution control agencies, which are reviewed by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and validated for use.
“Ozone, commonly called smog, and fine particle pollution, which is composed of soot, dust and aerosols, are measured, and counties in the Mid-Atlantic region are graded ‘A’ to ‘F’ for each category where sufficient data exists,” he said.
Stewart said ozone is a powerful respiratory irritant that sears lung tissue, and even at relatively low levels, can affect even healthy people’s ability to breathe. Fine particle pollution, more formally called PM2.5 because it is particulate matter with an aerodynamic diameter of 2.5 microns or less, is made up of complex bits of solid or liquid matter that are typically no larger than one-thirtieth the width of a human hair.
“Particle pollution can cause serious health problems even at relatively low concentrations, and is responsible for tens of thousands of premature deaths in the U.S. each year,” he said. “They are tiny enough to penetrate the body’s natural defense systems and become embedded in the lungs. Some have been shown to enter the bloodstream. Hundreds of peer-reviewed studies have linked particle pollution to a myriad of health problems.”
“The air in this northeast Pennsylvania metro area is markedly cleaner than it was after the first ‘State of the Air’ report 15 years ago,” said Deb Brown, president and CEO of the American Lung Association of the Mid-Atlantic. “More needs to be done, however, as we have seen increases in ozone. We must set stronger health standards for pollutants and clean up sources of pollution in northeast Pennsylvania to protect the health of our citizens.”
Although year-round particle pollution levels have shown a nationwide decline as a result of the Clean Air Act, particle pollution levels can spike dangerously for hours to weeks on end (short-term) or remain at unhealthful levels on average every day (year-round).
The data on air quality throughout the United States were obtained from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Quality System (AQS), formerly called Aerometric Information Retrieval System (AIRS) database.
The American Lung Association led the fight for a new, national air quality standard that strengthened outdated limits on annual levels of particle pollution, announced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in December 2012. Thanks to air pollution health standards set under the Clean Air Act and the EPA’s enforcement of these standards, the U.S. has seen continued reductions in air pollution.
Cleaning up major air pollution sources through steps such as the cleaner gasoline and cleaner vehicle standards will drastically cut both ozone and particle pollution. That means more health protections for more than 147.6 million people, 47 percent of the nation’s population, who live where pollution levels are too often dangerous to breathe. That is an increase of almost 16 million people from last year’s report. Nearly 28 million people in the U.S. live in counties where the outdoor air failed all three pollution tests.
“The evidence is clear that the Clean Air Act delivers significant health benefits,” said Brown. “Congress needs to continue to ensure that the provisions under the Clean Air Act are protected and enforced as new challenges to the act emerge. The EPA and every state must have adequate funding to monitor air pollution and to protect our citizens from it.”
Those at greatest risk from air pollution include infants, children, older adults, anyone with lung disease such as asthma, people with heart disease or diabetes, people with low incomes and anyone who works or exercises outdoors.
The American Lung Association’s “State of the Air 2014” report is an annual, national air quality “report card.” The 2014 report – the 15th annual release – uses the most recent quality-assured air pollution data, compiled by the EPA for 2010, 2011, and 2012. These data come from the official monitors for ozone and particle pollution. The report grades counties and ranks cities and counties based on their scores for ozone, year-round particle pollution and short-term particle pollution levels.
The American Lung Association in Pennsylvania urges the public to join the fight for clean air and to learn how to protect themselves and their families from air pollution by visiting www.stateoftheair.org.