Air Pollution Improvements Can Be Easily Undone, Report Says

Apr 19, 2017

More than 1.3 million Massachusetts residents remain at risk from health effects caused by unhealthy air. That’s according to the American Lung Association’s State of the Air 2017 report. 

The American Lung Association’s national report card found 7 out of 10 counties in Massachusetts have improved ozone quality. (Data from four counties were not recorded for the report.)

Ozone, or smog as it's often called, is one of most common forms of hazardous air pollution. 

Casey Harvell Bowers, the association’s director of public policy in Massachusetts, says the worst air pollution was in Bristol and Essex Counties, which received a failing grade for ozone quality.

“Berkshire County fares much better, and in fact finds itself on the ‘Cleanest Counties Nationwide’ list for short-term particle pollution,” Harvell Bowers says.

The report says breathing unhealthy air can put residents at risk for asthma attacks, worsened COPD symptoms and cardiovascular harm.

While the data support Massachusetts’ overall reduced ozone levels and year-round particle pollution, or soot, there were extreme short-term spikes in particle pollution because of wildfires and droughts.

Ozone levels and particle pollution are regulated by the federal Clean Air Act, which caps emissions at coal-fired power plants and motor vehicles.

“Thanks to regulations and the Clean Air Act, we have seen great strides made by the country, and especially in the Berkshire area where we have seen the closing of coal-fired power plants and more local sources of pollution being improved.”

The Association’s Vice President of Public Policy, Michael Seilback, says many Massachusetts counties followed the national trend that showed improvement across the country from last year’s scores. But he says… 

“There are still far too many people living in our region that are being exposed to unhealthy levels of air pollution.”

Seilback says the region is also upwind from industrial pollutants from the Midwest.

“In the summer times we often hear about those high ozone days and ozone alert days and for some of us we continue to go about our business without thinking twice.”

But it could be very dangerous for children, the elderly and people with preexisting lung or heart conditions.

“Breathing in air on those unhealthy days, literally could send them to the hospital, it could make them sick, it could cause an asthma attack or a heart attack.”

Seilback says those extremely unhealthy days have gotten fewer. Harvell Bowers highlighted the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, of which Northeast and some Mid-Atlantic states are a part.  Seilback pointed to the Clean Air Act.

“The Clean Air Act has directly led to technologies and air quality improvements which is making the air that we breathe cleaner and healthier.”

Seilback warned that progress on air quality could be easily be undone.

“Healthy air protections are under attack and they must be defended to save lives here and across the country. We know that air travels from one state to another, so we need strong federal protections to help protect the air that we all breathe.”

The research shows ozone is harder to clean up due to climate change and warming temperatures. President Donald Trump has proposed cuts to federal climate science funding and has deregulated industries that are a major source of dangerous emissions.

“And the Lung Association is calling on President Trump, EPA Administrator Pruitt and members of Congress to fully fund, implement and enforce the Clean Air Act for all air pollutants including those that are driving climate change and making it harder to ensure that there is healthy air to breathe for all Americans,” Seilback says.

Berkshire County is joined by Hampden, home to Springfield, on the Cleanest Counties list.

Albany’s report card jumped from a D to an A. The areas around Utica and Poughkeepsie have improved too. Plattsburgh is heading in the right direction, but the ozone level was not recorded.