Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton Metro Area Has Best Ever Results for Year-Round Particle Pollution, Finds 2021 ‘State of the Air’ Report

American Lung Association’s annual air quality report finds over 40% of Americans breathing unhealthy air; for ozone smog

This year’s “State of the Air” report from the American Lung Association finds that the four-county Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton metro area continued its long-term trend of general improvement for year-round particle pollution by posting a new best-ever average. The area’s worst value for the short-term measure of fine particle pollution worsened slightly as Lehigh County returned to being monitored for that pollutant. For ozone smog, the metro area, with Northampton County’s “D” grade, advanced to the passing column. See the full report, based on the three years of data from 2017 through 2019, at Lung.org/sota. 

The worst grades in the metro area for the daily measures of particle pollution and ozone smog were “C” and “D,” respectively. “Clearly, both show room for improvement and more must be done to protect the health of people at risk,” said American Lung Association Director of Environmental Health Kevin Stewart. “There are still many days when the air pollution levels are high enough to harm health and trigger asthma attacks, heart attacks and stroke, placing children, older adults, and people living with chronic lung and heart disease at particular risk. Ozone and particle pollution are the nation’s most harmful and widespread air pollutants, and both can be deadly. In addition, more exposure to particle pollution is linked to worse health outcomes from COVID-19, including more deaths.” 

“The American Lung Association’s 2021 ‘State of the Air’ report shows that despite some nationwide progress on cleaning up air pollution, more than 40% of Americans live with unhealthy ozone or particle pollution,” said Stewart. “People of color are significantly more likely to breathe polluted air than white people. As the nation works to address climate change and continue reducing air pollution, we must prioritize the health of disproportionately burdened communities.”  

“The burdens of unhealthy air fall heaviest on our children, seniors, lower income communities and residents with existing heart and lung disease. These challenges are only compounded by the increasing well-documented and understood public health threats associated with climate change driven by fossil fuels,” said Stewart. “Our changing climate demands urgent action to reduce impacts to public health, air quality and our quality of life. Therefore, tightening the cap on harmful carbon emissions within the overall drive to reduce carbon pollution from all sectors is a proactive step that Pennsylvania can take by joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). The regional efforts to reduce power plant emissions are an important step toward securing critical emission reductions.” 

Ozone Pollution in the Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton metro area - Compared to the 2020 report, the A-B-E metro area experienced fewer unhealthy days of high ozone in 2017-2019 than it had in 2016-2018. Northampton County, PA, the county in the metro area with the highest ozone readings, reported a weighted average of 2.3 days (a “D” grade) in 2017-2019, better than the 4.3 days (an “F”) in last year’s report. But the best performance in the metro area was in 2013-2015, when Lehigh County, PA, had an average of 2.0 days (a “C”) per year of high ozone. The area’s ranking improved to 70th most polluted in the country from 56th worst in last year’s report. 

“Ozone pollution can harm even healthy people, but is particularly dangerous for children, older adults and people with lung diseases such as COPD or asthma,” said Stewart. “Breathing ozone-polluted air can trigger asthma attacks in both adults and children with asthma, which can land them in the doctor’s office or the emergency room. Ozone can even shorten people’s lives.”   

Particle Pollution in the Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton metro area “State of the Air” 2021 found that year-round particle pollution continued its long-term trend of general improvement since 2010-12 as the A-B-E metro area posted a new best-ever average and met the standard for this pollutant. Lehigh County was the county in the metro area with the highest year-round average, its level of 8.4 µg/m3 (micrograms per cubic meter) improving on the metro area’s previous best-ever level of 9.0 µg/m3, recorded in the past two reports.  The area’s ranking also improved, to 88th most polluted in the country from 57th worst in last year’s report. 

The report also tracked short-term spikes in particle pollution, which can be extremely dangerous and even lethal. Lehigh County, PA, which had long been unmonitored, displaced Northampton County for the first time as worst in the metro area for short-term particle pollution with its weighted average of 1.0 unhealthy day (a “C” grade), worse than the best-ever level of 0.7 days (a “B”) recorded in 2016-2018. Unsurprisingly, the metro area’s rank among the nation’s cities worsened, from 64th in last year’s report to 54th in this year’s. 

“Particle pollution can lodge deep in the lungs and can even enter the bloodstream. It can trigger asthma attacks, heart attacks and strokes and cause lung cancer,” said Stewart. Particle pollution comes from industry, coal-fired power plants, construction, agriculture, vehicles, wildfires and wood-burning devices.”   

The year’s report found that nationwide, more than four in 10 people (135 million) lived with polluted air, placing their health and lives at risk. In the A-B-E metro area, air pollution placed the health of the more than 840,000 residents at risk, including those who are more vulnerable to the effects of air pollution, such as older adults, children and people with a lung disease. The report also shows that people of color were 61% more likely to live in a county with unhealthy air than white people, and three times more likely to live in a county that failed all three air quality grades. The report also finds that climate change made air quality worse and harder to clean up. 

The Lung Association’s annual air quality “report card” tracks and grades Americans’ exposure to unhealthful levels of particle pollution (also known as soot) and ozone (smog) over a three-year period—this year’s report covers 2017-2019. The report analyzes particle pollution in two ways: average annual levels and short-term spikes. Both ozone and particle pollution can cause premature death and other serious health effects such as
asthma attacks and cardiovascular damage, and are linked to developmental and reproductive harm. Particle pollution can also cause lung cancer. 
Learn more about “State of the Air” at Lung.org/sota-petition and sign the petition for the Biden Administration to promote clean air, a safe climate and environmental justice. Media interested in speaking with an expert about lung health, clean air and threats to air quality can contact Val.Gleason at [email protected] or 717-971-1123.  

For more information, contact:

Valerie Gleason
717-971-1123
[email protected]

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