PHILADELPHIA, PA – The American Lung Association's "State of the Air 2014" report released Thursday, May 1st finds the Philadelphia metropolitan area enjoyed the best local results for two measures of air quality since the association began its annual pollution report 15 years ago, while a third measure was worse than it was in last year's report.
The 2014 report, based on data for the three-year period of 2010-2012, showed improvements in both year-round and short-term (daily) particle pollution. The news wasn't all good, however, as ozone, commonly called smog, came in worse than it did in the 2009 data, likely due to warmer temperatures in 2012, reflecting national trends.
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.
"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."
Despite mostly better numbers, the area was tied as the 11th most polluted nationwide for year-round particle pollution in the latest report after standing alone in 11th in 2013. The lack of a better ranking was due in part to the Office of Management and Budget's (OMB) move 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. In addition to its previous 13 counties, the new Philadelphia-Reading-Camden, PA-NJ-DE-MD area also includes the counties of Kent, in Delaware, and Atlantic and Cape May in New Jersey.
The area worsened to 26th most polluted in the nation for short-term (daily) particle pollution, having ranked 29th in the previous report. It had the best report ever with fewer unhealthful days, but still failed to meet the national air quality standard. New Jersey stood atop the rankings in the short-term category, scoring an "A" in the three counties where samples were collected.
The area worsened in ozone pollution levels, ranking 16th worst in the nation after tying for 20th worst last year. In addition to consolidations of the OMB's reporting areas, the change in ozone levels can likely be attributed to warmer and sunnier days in 2012.
Like other areas, Philadelphia-Reading-Camden's rankings worsened partly because some higher-ranking metro areas were consolidated, and partly because some other cities improved more than it did.
For ozone smog, "State of the Air 2014" recorded failing grades for all monitored counties in the area. Moreover, all 13 counties' ozone levels were worse than in last year's report:
· Philadelphia County, PA, remained the most polluted county in the metro area as well as in Pennsylvania, and was graded "F," significantly worsening its weighted annual average to 16.7 days with unhealthful levels of ozone in 2010-2012 from 10.7 in 2009-2011;
· Berks County, PA, had an "F" with 5.3 unhealthful days of smog;
· Bucks County, PA, was graded "F" for 11.0 days;
· Chester County, PA, came in with an "F" for 9.0 days;
· Delaware County, PA, recorded 7.7 days for an "F;"
· Montgomery County, PA, had a weighted average of 6.3 days for an "F;"
· Atlantic County, NJ, was an "F" with 4.0 days;
· Camden County, NJ, was second worst county in the area, earning an "F" with 15.3 days;
· Gloucester County, NJ, was third worst county in the area, reporting 14.0 days for an "F;"
The Philadelphia-Reading-Camden metro area was one of 18 that improved among the nation's 25 worst metropolitan areas for year-round particle pollution in 2010-2012. However, all of the most polluted cities continue to violate health-based standards. Half of the area's monitored counties fared better than in last year's report, and all but three counties—Chester, Delaware, and Philadelphia, PA—earned passing marks by meeting or beating the national standard of 12.0. All units are given in micrograms per cubic meter:
· Berks County, PA, passed with an average of 10.9;
· Bucks County, PA, again posted a passing report of 10.9;
· Chester County, PA, last year's most polluted county in the region, significantly improved but missed the standard by 0.3 with an average of 12.3, third worst in the area;
· Delaware County, PA, failed again, this year with a worse result of 13.1, and finished second worst in the area;
· Montgomery County, PA, passed, improving to 9.8;
· Philadelphia County, PA, having passed last year, failed with 13.4, and moved to worst place in the metro area;
· Atlantic County, NJ, passed, improving to 8.9;
· Camden County, NJ, passed, improving to 9.5;
· Gloucester County, NJ, passed with 9.3, the same as last year
The metropolitan area improved in short-term particles reporting fewer days with unhealthful particle pollution in 2010-2012, but worsened slightly in the rankings. "State of the Air 2014" finds that although grades for this pollutant were mixed in the area, only one county (Bucks) posted worse results with the area's only failing mark, and four counties repeated their perfect "A" grades:
· Berks County, PA, received a "C" with a weighted annual average of 2.0 days;
· Bucks County, PA, last year posting an average of 2.5 days for a "D," became the most polluted county in the area, receiving the area's only "F," with 3.5 days;
· Chester County, PA, on the other hand, effectively traded places with Bucks County, having been worst in the area in last year's report, failing with 3.7 days, but now rated a "D" with 2.7 days for second worst in the metro area;
· Delaware County, PA, improved to a "C" with 1.7 days;
· Montgomery County, PA, was a "C," equaling last year's 1.3 weighted average;
· Philadelphia County, PA, again had a "D," but with an improved average of 2.3 days;
· Atlantic County, NJ, recorded an "A" with a 0.0 weighted average;
· Camden County, NJ, had an "A," also with 0.0 days;
· Gloucester County, NJ, was an "A" with 0.0 days
"The air in the greater Delaware Valley 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, the worst since 2009-2010. We must set stronger health standards for pollutants and clean up sources of pollution in southeastern Pennsylvania and the metro area 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 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 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. 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.
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