Mecklenburg Co. gets an F in ozone, A in particle pollution

- The American Lung Association released an annual report card Wednesday. They found improvement in air quality, but more than half of the people in the U.S. live in counties that have unhealthful levels of either ozone or particle pollution.

The report card found that 166 million American live with unhealthful levels of air pollution, putting them at risk for premature death and other serious health effects like lung cancer, asthma attacks, cardiovascular damage, and developmental and reproductive harm, according a spokesperson for the American Lung Association.

"Thanks to cleaner power plants and cleaner vehicles, we see a continued reduction of ozone and year-round particle pollution in the 2016 'State of the Air' report. However, climate change has increased the challenges to protecting public health," said Harold P. Wimmer, National President and CEO of the American Lung Association. "There are still nearly 20 million people in the United States that live with unhealthful levels of all three measures of air pollution the report tracks: ozone, short-term and year-round particle pollution."

Each year the "State of the Air" reports on the two most widespread outdoor air pollutants, ozone pollution and particle pollution. The spokesperson said 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 be lethal. 

Mecklenburg County is ranked 56 for high ozone days out of 197 metropolitan areas. It is ranked 1 for cleanest metropolitan areas in the country for 24-hour particle pollution and it is ranked 90 for annual particle pollution out of 171 metropolitan areas.

This year's 17th annual report, short-term spikes in particle pollution have gotten worse since the 2015 report. The report shows that Bakersfield, Calif. has the worst particle pollution problem. Mecklenburg County received an A in particle pollution.

“Particle pollution is made of soot or tiny particles that come from coal-fired power plants, 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 Lawrence Jones. “Year-round particle pollution levels have dropped thanks to the cleanup of coal-fired power plants and the retirement of old, dirty diesel engines.”

Many of these spikes were linked to weather patterns like drought or wildfires.

Top 10 U.S. Cities Most Polluted by Short-Term Particle Pollution (24-hour PM2.5):
1. Bakersfield, Calif.
2. Fresno-Madera, Calif.
3. Visalia-Porterville-Hanford, Calif.
4. Modesto-Merced, Calif.
5. Fairbanks, Ala.
6. Salt lake City-Provo-Orem, Utah
7. Logan, Utah-Idaho
8. San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland, Calif.
9. Los Angeles-Long Beach, Calif.
10. Missoula, Mont.

Year-round particle pollution levels have dropped thanks to the cleanup of coal-fired power plants and the retirement of old, dirty diesel engines, according to the report. Mecklenburg County passed this section.

Top 10 U.S. Cities Most Polluted by Year-Round Particle Pollution (Annual PM2.5):
1. Bakersfield, Calif.
2. Visalia-Porterville-Hanford, Calif.
3. Fresno-Madera, Calif.
4. Los Angeles-Long Beach, Calif.
5. El Centro, Calif.
6. (tied) Modesto-Merced, Calif.
7. (tied) San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland, Calif.
8. Pittsburgh-New Castle-Weirton, Pa.-Ohio-W. Va.
9. Harrisburg-York-Lebanon, Pa.
10. Louisville-Jefferson
11. County-Elizabethtown-Madison, KY-IN

The report says ozone pollution has decreased because the nation has cleaned up major sources of the emissions that create ozone, especially coal-fired power plants and vehicles. However, climate change causes greater heat, which makes ozone form. When a person inhales ozone pollution, it can cause coughing, trigger asthma attacks, and even shorten life. Mecklenburg County received an F in ozone.

“Ozone is harmful to public health and especially children, older adults and those with asthma and other lung diseases,” said Alison Lawrence Jones, North Carolina Project Manager for Mothers & Others for Clean Air. “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.” 

Top 10 Most Ozone-Polluted Cities:
1. Los Angeles-Long Beach, Calif.
2. Bakersfield, Calif.
3. Visalia-Porterville-Hanford, Calif.
4. Fresno-Madera, Calif.
5. Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale, Ariz.
6. Sacramento-Roseville, Calif.
7. Modesto-Merced, Calif.
8. Denver-Aurora, Colo.
9. Las Vegas-Henderson, Nev.-Ariz.
10. Fort Collins, Colo.

"We can and must do more to save lives and fight climate change," Wimmer said. "The Lung Association calls on every state to adopt strong Clean Power Plans to reduce emissions from power plants that worsen climate change and immediately harm health. The Supreme Court has put a temporary hold on EPA’s enforcement of the federal Clean Power Plan, but states should not wait to clean up carbon pollution from their power plants."

Learn more about the 2016 "State of the Air" report, here.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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