The American Lung Association’s 2019 “State of the Air” report found that the 6-county Harrisburg-York-Lebanon metro area improved its annual average level of fine particle pollution so that it was much better than reported in last year’s report, continuing to meet the national air quality standard. Having been tied in last year’s report for the 15th most polluted city in the nation for this measure, the metro area’s rank improved, but only to 24th worst.
The 20th annual air quality “report card” tracks Americans’ exposure to unhealthful levels of ozone and particle pollution, both of which can be deadly. The report also found that the metro area had less ozone smog pollution, but its worst grade continued to be an “F”. The area’s rank improved slightly from 45th to 47th worst in the nation.
“Mid-state residents should be aware that we’re breathing unhealthy air, driven by local emissions, upwind sources, and extreme heat as a result of climate change, placing our health and lives at risk,” said Kevin Stewart, the American Lung Association’s Director of Environmental Health for Advocacy and Public Policy. “In addition to challenges here in the capital region and beyond, the 20th-anniversary ‘State of the Air’ report highlights that more than 4 in 10 Americans are living with unhealthy air, and we’re heading in the wrong direction when it comes to protecting public health.”
For the daily measure of fine particle pollution, the metro area posted its first set of all-passing grades under the current air pollution standard. The area’s worst weighted average number of unhealthy days for this pollutant (2.3) was recorded in Dauphin County, for which it earned a “D” grade, significantly better than the “F” grade earned for Lebanon County’s 3.7-day average in last year’s report. As a result of this improvement, the area’s rank improved markedly, from tied for 22nd worst in last year’s report to tied for 35th most polluted in this year’s.
This year’s report covers the most recent quality-assured data available collected by states, cities, counties, tribes and federal agencies in 2015-2017. Notably, those three years were the hottest recorded in global history.
Each year the “State of the Air” provides a report card on the two most widespread outdoor air pollutants, ozone pollution, also known as smog, and particle pollution often called soot. The report analyzes particle pollution in two ways: through average annual particle pollution levels and short-term spikes in particle pollution. Both ozone and particle pollution are dangerous to public health and can increase the risk of premature death and other serious health effects such as lung cancer, asthma attacks, cardiovascular damage, and developmental and reproductive harm.
Ozone Pollution in Harrisburg-York-Lebanon
Compared to the 2018 report, the metro area experienced fewer unhealthy days of high ozone in this year’s report, with Lebanon County continuing for the third year in a row as the county in the metro area with the most days with high ozone levels. The improvement, however, was modest, and Lebanon County continued to earn an “F” grade,
“Ozone especially harms children, older adults and those with asthma and other lung diseases,” said Stewart. “When older adults or children with asthma breathe ozone-polluted air, too often they end up in the doctor’s office, the hospital or the emergency room. Ozone can even shorten life itself.”
This report documents how warmer temperatures brought by climate change make ozone more likely to form and harder to clean up. This year’s report showed that ozone levels increased in most cities nationwide, in large part due to the record-breaking global heat experienced in the three years tracked in the report.
Particle Pollution in Harrisburg-York-Lebanon
The 2019 report also found year-round particle pollution levels to be the best ever for the metro area. The maximum value was significantly lower than in the 2018 report and continued to meet the air quality standard. Nationwide, the best progress in this year’s report came in reducing year-round levels of particle pollution. Lebanon County returned as the county in the metro area with the worst average concentration of fine particle pollution. Levels in the metro area have generally been steadily decreasing over the years.
“Particle pollution is made of soot or tiny particles that come from coal-fired power plants, industrial sources, diesel emissions, wildfires and wood-burning devices. These particles are so small that they can lodge deep in the lungs and trigger asthma attacks, heart attacks and strokes, and can even be lethal,” said Stewart. “Year-round particle pollution levels have dropped thanks to the cleanup of coal-fired power plants and the retirement of old, dirty diesel engines.”
“State of the Air” 2019 also tracked short-term spikes in particle pollution, as these can be extremely dangerous and even lethal. The report found that the metro area posted the fewest ever maximum number of days when short-term particle pollution reached unhealthy levels, although this result (in Dauphin County) earned only a “D” grade.
While improvements have been made locally, many of these spikes in the western United States were directly linked to weather patterns leading to drought or to wildfire events, which are increasing in frequency and intensity in many areas of the country due to climate change.