Nearly half of all Americans live in counties – including 14 in Indiana – where ozone or particle pollution levels make the air unhealthy to breathe, according to the American Lung Association’s State of the Air 2014 report released today.
The group’s 15th annual national report card shows that while the nation overall continued to reduce particle pollution – a pollutant recently found to cause lung cancer – poor air quality remains a significant public health concern, and a changing climate threatens to make it harder to protect human health.
Especially alarming, American Lung Association officials said, is that levels of ozone (which causes smog), a powerful respiratory irritant and the most widespread air pollutant, were much worse than in the previous year’s report.
Janice Nolen, American Lung Association assistant vice president of national policy and State of the Air project director, said it is important to recognize the gains made thanks to the Clean Air Act.
At least half of the news is really good, Nolen said. We’ve been doing this report 15 years, and if you look back to the late 1990s, we’ve come a long way.
But there is still much to be done, she cautioned.
While particle pollution levels generally showed improvement, ozone worsened in the most polluted metropolitan areas in 2010-12 compared with 2009-11, the report shows. The warm summers in 2010 and 2012 contributed to higher ozone readings and more frequent high-ozone days. Of the 25 metro areas most polluted by ozone, 22 had worse ozone problems.
Among those measuring worse ozone problems were Los Angeles, Houston, Washington-Baltimore, Las Vegas, Phoenix, New York City, Cincinnati, Chicago and Philadelphia.
In Indiana, 14 counties got a D or an F in this year’s report for high ozone days, up from six in last year’s report. Allen County had the only D; it scored a C last year and a B the year before that.
For particle pollution, six Indiana counties scored a D or an F, up from five in last year’s report.
Not everyone agrees with the American Lung Association numbers, however.
The Indiana Department of Environmental Management issued its own report this month, focusing on the positive. It uses the same data but analyzes it differently to dilute poor results. According to IDEM’s report, no counties had failing grades for ozone or particle pollution.
The air gets cleaner in the state every year, we have the data to show it, IDEM spokesman Dan Goldblatt said. Indiana was in attainment of National Ambient Air Quality Standards in 2013 in all 92 counties.
Dr. Deborah McMahan, Allen County health commissioner, said it doesn’t help people to try to sugar-coat results.
I don’t virtually feel better getting an A, McMahan said. You need to know where you really stand.
That is especially important for anyone with lung or cardiac issues, she said.
We do know people are going to have sensitivity to ozone and particulate matter, McMahan said. And there’s an ever-growing number of people who have asthma.
American Lung Association President and CEO Harold Wimmer said the report shows that environmental laws must be strengthened, not weakened.
The past 15 years have also confirmed that air pollution is a more serious threat to our health than we’d previously known. For example, the World Health Organization determined last fall that particle pollution causes lung cancer, Wimmer said.
Air pollution remains a pervasive public health threat in the United States, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency must continue to follow the Clean Air Act and set and enforce standards that protect the public health, he said.
The ALA listed several steps it says would improve air quality, including reducing pollution from power plants, strengthening outdated ozone standards, cleaning up new wood-burning devices, properly funding the EPA and protecting the Clean Air Act.