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WAMC News

American Lung Association: Most Americans Breathe Polluted Air

According to the American Lung Association, more than 140 million people are breathing unhealthy air — 7 million more than last year.

The latest report, released Wednesday, finds more than four in 10 people nationwide live where pollution levels are too often dangerous to breathe. ALA's 2019 "State of the Air" report card tracks Americans’ exposure to unhealthful levels of ozone or particle pollution, both of which can be deadly.

Michael Seilback, a National Assistant Vice President for State Public Policy for the American Lung Association, says the report card is based on data recorded during 2015, ‘16 and ‘17, three of the warmest years on record.   "This year's report documents the impact of climate change as warmer temperatures, wild fires and changing weather patterns led to increasing levels of ozone and particle pollution."

While several counties maintained their grades from the 2018 report, many New York state residents suffered from worsened air quality due to increased ozone pollution, and only one county improved.  On particle pollution, Seilback says the state followed the national trend of reduced year-round levels of particle pollution.  "Over 9.9 million New Yorkers live in counties with failing air quality. That equates to over 50 percent of New York residents."

New York City maintains its ranking as the 10th most polluted city in the nation for ozone, while Monroe, Putnam and Rockland counties received reduced grades for ozone pollution and 10 counties received an F.                                                                                                                                                             

The Albany-Schenectady region ranks among the cleanest for short-term particle pollution. Albany received a grade B for High Ozone Days, grade A in particle pollution.

Dr. Payel Gupta, an Asthma and Allergy specialist treating adults and children in New York City, says ozone pollution acts like a sunburn of the lung.   "It's formed in the atmosphere when emissions from many sources react or cook in the sunlight. Those emissions can come from motor vehicles, chemical plants, refineries, factories, gas stations, paint and other sources. What's particularly scary about ozone is that even for healthiest, most active person, it can cause pain, discomfort, and make breathing difficult.  My patients who are already struggling with lung diseases, like asthma, have to be especially careful during the summers here in New York - because those red or orange days can be the difference between heading to work or heading to the ER."

ALA's Director of Advocacy Elizabeth Hamlin:   "Fairfield County Connecticut once again has the worse ozone levels in the region and the worst in the entire eastern United States. This is why our region is often called 'the tailpipe of the nation.' In fact, both New York and Connecticut petitioned to the EPA to require more cleanup of ozone-creating emission sources in Pennsylvania and eight other states. In April of 2018, the EPA denied Connecticut's position and New York is still waiting for the EPA to respond."
The EPA sent the following statement to WAMC.

"The United States is a global leader in clean air progress, and the Lung Association paints a pessimistic picture based upon a problematic methodology," the agency said. "EPA methods for determining air quality, which are based on the Clean Air Act and the latest science, show continued improvements in measures of U.S. air quality in recent years and into the future."

Gupta says the ALA is looking to Washington for help.   "In this report the American Lung Association calls for the administration and congress to adopt science-based solution to reduce emissions that are causing climate change and to ensure no community near a polluting source gets left behind. That's a call to action that I'm proud to stand behind and one that I believe will make us all healthier."

Janice Nolen is the American Lung Association's Assistant Vice President of National Policy, and the author of the 2019 report. She warns climate change is a public health emergency. She shares seven threats discussed in this year's edition:    "One, repealing plans to reduce carbon pollution from power plants. Two, removing the limits on methane and other emissions from oil and gas operations. Three, opening doors for more polluting trucks and cars. Four, setting funding and expertise needed to clean up the air. Five, stacking the deck to deny the science evidence. Six, weakening Clean Air Act limitations and seven, weakening the Clean Air Act itself."

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