Lung Association's 'State of Air' lays out data

On the 50th anniversary of the Clean Air Act, the American Lung Association’s 2020 “State of the Air” report shows work to be done in the First State.

“Delaware residents continue to breathe some of the most unhealthy air in the country, driven by emissions from vehicles and industrial sources, both locally generated as well as significantly from upwind,” said American Lung Association Chief Mission Officer Deborah Brown, who works out of Newark.

What we’re breathing is suddenly more important than ever. The effect of air pollution on lungs is a large concern during the coronavirus pandemic.

“During this crisis, people are facing multiple threats to their lung health at once, including unhealthy air pollution, so it’s critical we keep looking at the state of the nation’s air and educating people on how they can protect themselves,” Brown said.

Ozone and particles

“State of the Air” is an annual, nationwide report card on the two most widespread outdoor air pollutants, ozone (smog) and particles (soot).

“We have a variety of issues that contribute to air pollution,” Brown said. “Cars, trucks, diesel equipment, power plants, those type of things.”

According to the American Lung Association, ozone develops in the atmosphere from gases that come out of tailpipes, smokestacks and other sources. In sunlight, they react and form ozone smog.

Particle pollution is a mix of tiny solid and liquid particles in the air we breathe. Many of them are invisible. However, when levels are high, the air becomes opaque, like the gray exhaust out of a tailpipe.

With extreme temperatures becoming more common across the globe, the effect of pollution is becoming more intense.

This year’s report covers 2016, 2017 and 2018 – three years among the five hottest in global history. Rising temperatures are making ozone more likely to form and harder to clean up. Wildfires increase particle pollution.

Both ozone and particle pollution are dangerous to public health and can increase the risk of premature death. New research links air pollution to the development of serious diseases, like asthma and dementia.

They can increase the risk asthma attacks, cardiovascular damage and developmental and reproductive harm. Particle pollution can cause lung cancer.

In addition, significantly more people suffered unhealthy ozone pollution in the 2020 report than in the last three.

The data

Ozone levels continue high in Delaware. None of the counties’ grades changed from last year. New Castle County improved slightly but still earned an “F.”

Kent and Sussex Counties experienced more days of high ozone levels, earning a “C” and a “D,” respectively.

Particle pollution is measured in two ways, the annual average and daily spikes.

Encouragingly, Kent and Sussex Counties earned “A” grades for daily particle pollution in this year’s report. Both had zero days with average concentrations at unhealthy levels, making them two of the cleanest counties in the nation for short-term spikes of fine particle pollution.

New Castle County earned a “C,” posting three days of unhealthy levels of particle pollution. New Castle County is considered part of the Philadelphia metro area, which ranked as the 12th most polluted city in the nation for its average annual level of fine particle pollution.

Air pollution and the coronavirus

“Some early evidence suggests that exposure to air pollution can make people more vulnerable to COVID-19 and may increase its severity if they get sick,” said Brown.

She stressed that the most important things anyone can do to protect themselves and others from the coronavirus are to stay home, wash their hands and follow the guidance of state and local authorities.

The silver lining of the coronavirus pandemic is that less human activity means less pollution.

“There have been multiple reports that show reduced driving has led to lower air pollution,” Brown said. “It’s not the way we want to improve our air quality, but the reduced emissions really demonstrate how clean our air could be with less cars on the road.”