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To keep enjoying outdoor spaces, Philly air quality needs improvement | Opinion

Improving our city's air means stopping pollution at the source.

Skylar and Jonathan Schatz play in hammocks in Spruce Street Harbor Park.
Skylar and Jonathan Schatz play in hammocks in Spruce Street Harbor Park.Read moreJOY LEE / Staff Photographer

Whether they're lounging on Spruce Street Harbor Park hammocks, biking along the Schuylkill River Trail, or holding yoga poses at the Race Street Pier, Philadelphians are enjoying the city's newfound love for outdoor spaces.

On one hand, it's never been better for Philadelphians to be outside. The new Rail Park boasts a quarter-mile stretch of pathways, greenery, and bench swings with amazing city views. Pop Up Gardens sponsored by the Philadelphia Horticulture Society are everywhere, and families are gathering at dog parks and playgrounds in every neighborhood. The city and local groups of all kinds are creating outdoor spaces and events that benefit Philadelphia.

But unfortunately, the city has yet to fully address a dark cloud hanging over these enjoyable outdoor spaces: air quality. Since May, the Pa. Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has issued more than 10 "code orange" air-quality action days for southeast Pennsylvania. The DEP typically issues these warnings when temperatures rise above 90 degrees during periods of high ozone formation. These alerts warn young children, the elderly, and people with respiratory problems to limit outdoor activities due to unhealthy smog levels in the air.

These alerts are alarming but shouldn't surprise anyone. The Environmental Protection Agency recently ruled that Philadelphia consistently fails to meet safe ground-level ozone standards. Smog is formed when nitrous oxide and volatile organic compounds like methane from traffic, power plants, and industrial boilers heat up. Smog can form from pollution hundreds of miles away, according to the Pennsylvania DEP. Every year, more than 100,000 tons of methane and other volatile organic compounds leak from Pennsylvania's 8,000 active fracking wells.

The detriments of smog exposure are well documented. Smog increases the frequency of asthma attacks, aggravates bronchitis and emphysema, inhibits early childhood lung growth, and is linked to long-term lung damage, increased hospital admissions, and heart failure.

Improving our city's air means stopping pollution at the source. Residents can do their part by limiting their energy use and opting for public transportation or a bicycle over hopping in the car. Elected officials can continue efforts to curb methane leaks and other air pollution from our state's oil and gas industry.

The key is everyone making air quality top of mind. Mitigating pollution and reducing our impact on the environment requires a collective effort. We all want to enjoy the wonderful outdoor spaces throughout our city. That starts with protecting every Philadelphian's right to breathe clean air.

Joseph Minott, Esq. is executive director and chief counsel of Clean Air Council.