SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — The American Lung Association’s 2016 State of the Air report found the St. Louis metro area ranked as the 18th-most polluted area in the nation for ozone pollution.
Compared to the 2015 report, Madison County has seen a significant decrease in ozone pollution. Madison County has also experienced less unhealthy days of high ozone (smog). This is in keeping with the trend seen across the nation of lower ozone pollution levels. However, given the amount of unhealthy ozone days in Madison County, the county still was issued a failing grade
“The 2016 ‘State of the Air’ report finds unhealthful levels of ozone in Madison County, putting our local citizens at risk for premature death and other serious health effects such
as asthma attacks and cardiovascular harm,” said Michael Kolleng, healthy air campaign manager of the American Lung Association in Illinois. “Across the nation, the report found continued improvement in air quality, but more than half of the people in the United States live in counties that have unhealthful levels of either ozone or particle pollution.”
Each year the State of the Air reports on the two most widespread outdoor air pollutants, ozone pollution and particle pollution. 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. But the trends reported in this year’s report, which covers data collected in 2012-2014, are strikingly different for these pollutants nationwide, and also in Madison County. However, because of measurement errors in data, particle pollution data in Illinois were deemed unusable.
“Particle pollution is an important contributor to the exacerbation of lung disease, especially as a trigger for asthma,” Kolleng said. “Particle pollution contributes to missed days of work, school, hospitalizations and premature death. It is important for the public to be well-informed of potential health risks, and the absence of this data creates a gap in that transparency. It is especially important since particle pollution has been linked to lung cancer risk, and Madison County has a history of unhealthy levels of particle pollution.”
Compared to the 2015 report (2011-2013), Madison County experienced fewer unhealthy days of high ozone in this year’s report. The average of ozone action days decreased from 26.2 days in the 2015 report to 19.2 in the 2016 report. There were still 47 “orange” ozone action days, and seven “red” ozone action days listed in the 2016 report.
“Ozone is harmful to public health and especially children, older adults and those with asthma and other lung diseases,” Kolleng said. “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.”
Nationwide, ozone pollution has decreased because of work to clean up major sources of the emissions that create ozone, especially coal-fired power plants and vehicles. However, according to research, climate change causes warmer temperatures, which makes ozone harder to clean up.
The 2016 report was unable to produce data for Illinois, the second consecutive year where data was deemed unusable due to a protocol discrepancy in analyzing data. Nationwide, the best progress in this year’s report came in reducing year-round levels of 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,” Kolleng said. “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. Year-round particle pollution levels have dropped nationwide, and were trending in the right direction in Madison County before the loss of data, thanks to the cleanup of coal-fired power plants and the retirement of old, dirty diesel engines.”
The 2016 report also tracked short-term spikes in particle pollution, as these can be extremely dangerous and even lethal. According to the 2016 report, the nation has fewer days when short-term particle pollution has reached unhealthy levels in 2012-2014.
Increased heat, changes in weather patterns, drought and wildfires are all related to climate change, which has contributed to the extraordinarily high numbers of days with unhealthy particle pollution in some cities. Many of these spikes can be directly linked to weather patterns like drought or to events like wildfires, which are likely to increase because of climate change.
“If we can do more to save lives we should, and we can,” Kolleng said. “The Lung Association in Illinois calls on Illinois to adopt a strong clean power plan to reduce harmful emissions from power plants that worsen climate change and immediately harm health.”
Learn more about Madison County’s rankings, as well as air quality across Illinois and the nation in the 2016 State of the Air report at stateoftheair.org.