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As ozone smog worsens in much of U.S., Roanoke is only metro area in Mid-Atlantic to remain on Cleanest Cities list, finds 2018 State of the Air report

Roanoke County debuts for year-round fine particle pollution; Roanoke metro area continues for 9th year to post best ever levels of this measure, according to American Lung Associations 19th annual air quality report

Updated Trend Charts and rankings for metropolitan areas and county grades are available at Lung.org/sota on April 18, 2018 at 12:01 a.m. EDT.

(April 18, 2018) - ROANOKE, Va.

For more information please contact:

Ewa Dworakowski
[email protected]
717-971-1123

The American Lung Association’s 2018 “State of the Air” report found that measures of fine particle pollution in the 2-city, 4-county Roanoke metro area continued to show good performance and steady improvement.  While ozone air pollution throughout much of the Mid-Atlantic worsened when compared with last year’s report, this pollutant continued to place the metro area on the list of “Cleanest Cities” in the country for this pollutant, the only area in the Mid-Atlantic to do so.  The “State of the Air” report gives results for three measures of air pollution—days with elevated ozone, and daily and annual values for fine particle pollution. 

For the year-round measure of fine particle pollution, the Roanoke metro area posted its best outcomes ever for the ninth consecutive year, and met the air quality standard for this measure for the past eight years.  While Roanoke County debuts in this year’s report with an even better result, this history is otherwise based on monitoring data recorded in Salem City.  The metro area’s ranking slightly improved, from 107th worst in last year’s report to 110th worst of 187 across the country. 

But while Salem City continued for the seventh consecutive year to post “A” grades for the daily measure of fine particle pollution, Roanoke County had the same performance, and again posted a “B,” just preventing the metro area’s once-held designation as one of the “Cleanest Cities” in the country for this pollutant.  Interestingly, because there were more days with unhealthful air quality for this pollutant elsewhere in the country, the metro area’s rank improved, from 72nd worst last year to 83rd worst of 201 metro areas in the current report.

But Roanoke County, the only county in the metro area monitored for ozone air pollution, for the second year had zero days high in ozone pollution, thereby retaining its “A” for the current report and placing the metro area on the list of 56 “Cleanest Cities” in the country for this pollutant, but the only one in the Mid-Atlantic.    As ozone levels worsened in much of the rest of the country, the national rank for the metro area therefore improved, from tied for 166th worst last year to tied for 172nd worst of 227 metro areas.

Compared to the 2017 report, Roanoke has seen continued good performance for ozone and a continuing gradual improvement in the year-round measure of particle pollution.  This is despite a trend seen across the nation for higher ozone and in keeping with a trend for lower particle pollution levels than in last year’s report.

“The 2018 ‘State of the Air’ report finds that unhealthful levels of air pollution in the Roanoke metro area appear to be rare.  In areas where they are not, they put people at risk for premature death and other serious health effects such as asthma attacks and greater difficulty breathing for those living with a lung disease such as COPD.  For example, in areas where there are many days with high ozone levels, people with lung diseases such as asthma will continue to need medical attention,” said Kevin Stewart, Director of Environmental Health, American Lung Association of the Mid-Atlantic. “Across the nation, the report found continued improvement in air quality, but still, more than four in 10 Americans – 133.9 million – live in counties that have unhealthful levels of either ozone or particle pollution, where their health is at risk.”

The trends in this year’s report, which covers data collected by states, cities, counties, tribes and federal agencies in 2014-2016, confirm the ongoing challenges to reduce each pollutant in the changing political and outdoor climate.

“We can and should do more to save lives,” Stewart said. “The American Lung Association in Virginia calls on our members of Congress to defend the Clean Air Act, currently under threat from those who want to weaken this effective public health law. We also call on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to implement and enforce the law instead of trying to roll back major safeguards such as the Clean Power Plan and cleaner cars, both steps that help us fight climate change and reduce air pollution.” 

For 19 years, “State of the Air” has provided a report card on the two most widespread outdoor air pollutants, ozone pollution, also known as smog, and particle pollution, also 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 the Roanoke metro area
Compared to the 2017 report, the Roanoke metro area resisted national trends toward a worsening of results, and showed no change in performance from last year’s report, retaining its grade of “A” as reported last year.

“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 also revealed that ozone levels increased in most cities nationwide, in large part due to warmer temperatures in 2016, the second hottest year on record in the U.S. Over the past decades, ozone pollution has decreased nationwide because the nation has cleaned up major sources of the emissions that create ozone, especially coal-fired power plants and vehicles.

Particle Pollution in the Roanoke metro area
The 2018 report also found year-round particle pollution levels were somewhat lower than in the 2017 report, continuing a steady decrease over nine years, with values much better than the national standard.
Nationwide, the best progress in this year’s report came in reducing year-round levels of particle pollution.

“Particle pollution is made of soot, chemicals, and 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 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” 2018 also tracked short-term spikes in particle pollution, as these can be extremely dangerous and even lethal. While Salem City continues to be found among the nation’s cleanest for this measure, in other areas of the country, many of the daily spikes in fine particle pollution were directly linked to weather patterns such as drought or to events such as wildfires, which are likely to increase because of climate change.  In some localities, high emissions from wood-burning devices have also been a factor.

While the report examined data from 2014-2016, this 19th annual report provides online information on air pollution trends back to the first report covering 1996-1998. Learn more about Virginia’s rankings, as well as air quality in the Roanoke metro area and across the nation in the “State of the Air” report at Lung.org/sota. For media interested in speaking with an expert about lung health and healthy air, contact the American Lung Association in Virginia Communications Director Ewa Dworakowski by calling 717-971-1123 or 717-503-3903 (cell) or emailing [email protected].

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About the American Lung Association

The American Lung Association is the leading organization working to save lives by improving lung health and preventing lung disease, through research, education and advocacy. The work of the American Lung Association is focused on four strategic imperatives: to defeat lung cancer; to improve the air we breathe; to reduce the burden of lung disease on individuals and their families; and to eliminate tobacco use and tobacco-related diseases. For more information about the American Lung Association, a holder of the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Guide Seal, or to support the work it does, call 1-800-LUNGUSA (1-800-586-4872) or visit: Lung.org.

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