Washington-Baltimore-Arlington Metro Area Continues to Rank Among Worst 25 in Nation for Ozone Smog, But Improved or Matched Best for All Three Measures Tracked, Finds 2020 ‘State of the Air’ Report

Editor’s Note: The full report, as well as UPDATED trend charts and rankings for metropolitan areas and county grades WILL BE available at www.Lung.org/SOTA beginning at 12:01 a.m. EDT April 21, 2020.

The American Lung Association’s 2020 “State of the Air” report found the Washington-Baltimore-Arlington, DC-MD-VA-WV-PA metro area ranked as the 20th most polluted for days with high levels of ozone smog. Ozone and particle pollution are the nation’s most widespread air pollutants, and both can be deadly.

In contrast, the metro area improved to its best performance ever for its 13th consecutive year for year-round fine particle pollution, ranking tied for 49th worst in the country out of 204 metro areas with data. And for the 15th year in a row, the metro area equaled or improved upon the previous year’s worst county’s number of unhealthy days on average for daily spikes of fine particle pollution.

The Lung Association’s annual air quality “report card” tracks Americans’ exposure to unhealthful levels of particle pollution and ozone during a three-year period. Once again, the report found that nearly half of all Americans were exposed to unhealthy air in 2016-2018. In the metro area covering the nation’s capital and 40 counties in four states, ozone air pollution placed the health of some 9.8 million residents at risk, including those who are more vulnerable to the effects of air pollution such as older adults, children and those with a lung disease.

“This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Clean Air Act, which has been responsible for dramatic improvements in air quality. However, Washington, Baltimore, and Northern Virginia area 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 from upwind, placing their health and lives at risk,” said American Lung Association Director of Environmental Health Kevin Stewart. “Furthermore, with nearly half of Americans breathing unhealthy air, our ‘State of the Air’ report shows that nationally, because of climate change, the nation is heading in the wrong direction when it comes to protecting public health.”

Each year the “State of the Air” provides 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 asthma attacks, cardiovascular damage, and developmental and reproductive harm. Particle pollution can also cause lung cancer, and new research links air pollution to the development of serious diseases, such as asthma and dementia.

This year’s report covers 2016, 2017 and 2018, the years with the most recent quality-assured data available collected by states, cities, counties, tribes and federal agencies. Notably, those three years were among the five hottest recorded in global history. Rising temperatures lead to increased levels of ozone pollution. Changing climate patterns also fuel wildfires and their dangerous smoke, which increase particle pollution. Ozone and particle pollution threaten everyone, especially children, older adults and people living with a lung disease. Although this report does not cover data from 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the impact of air pollution on lung health is of heightened concern. Learn more about that at www.Lung.org/covid-19.

Ozone Pollution in the Washington-Baltimore-Arlington, DC-MD-VA-WV-PA Metro Area

Having worsened significantly since its best-ever performance for ozone in the “State of the Air” 2017 report, the metro area experienced fewer unhealthy days of high ozone in its worst county in this year’s report. The area’s ranking improved to 20th worst most polluted in the nation from 16th worst last year, but it is not near its 32nd worst place in the 2017 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.”

This report documents that warmer temperatures brought by climate change are making ozone more likely to form and harder to clean up. Significantly more people suffered unhealthy ozone pollution in the 2020 report than in the last three “State of the Air” reports.

In addition to the “F” grades posted by the City of Baltimore and the District of Columbia, the following five counties in the metro area all earned “F” grades for ozone pollution in this year’s report: Arlington, VA and four Maryland counties: Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Harford, and Prince George’s. Baltimore County had the area’s worst performance, with 39 days of high ozone during the report period, including one “purple” day in the “Very Unhealthy for Everyone” category.

Particle Pollution in the Washington-Baltimore-Arlington, DC-MD-VA-WV-PA Metro Area

In contrast, “State of the Air” 2020 found that measures of fine particle pollution in this expansive metro area continued to be very good. For the measure of daily spikes of fine particle pollution, all jurisdictions with data remained unchanged from last year’s report, with the area’s worst grade being a “B.” For the year-round measure of this pollutant, every jurisdiction but one (with an unchanged result) posted a better long-term average in this year’s report than in last 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, diesel emissions, wildfires and wood-burning devices.

“Year-round particle pollution levels had dropped in recent years thanks to the cleanup of coal-fired power plants and the retirement of old, dirty diesel engines. However, the increase we’ve seen nationally in particle pollution in this year’s report is a troubling reminder that we must increase our efforts to reduce this dangerous pollution,” said Stewart.

“State of the Air” 2020 also tracked short-term spikes in particle pollution, which can be extremely dangerous and even lethal. The area’s worst performances for days when short-term particle pollution reached unhealthy levels were “B” grades earned for the two days high in this pollutant experienced in the District of Columbia and the City of Baltimore.

On a positive note, the following seven counties in the metro area all earned “A” grades for fine particle pollution in this year’s report, posting zero days with average concentrations in the unhealthy ranges, according to the air quality standard: Baltimore, Howard, Montgomery, and Prince George’s, MD; Frederick and Loudoun, VA; and Berkeley, WV. That placed these counties on the list of cleanest counties in the nation for this pollutant.

“We all have the right to breathe clean, healthy air. The 50th anniversary of the Clean Air Act serves as a critical reminder that Americans breathe healthier air today because of this landmark law,” said Stewart. “At the same time, this year’s report shows that we must stand up for clean air—especially to safeguard our most vulnerable community members. Our leaders, both here in the Capital region and at the federal level, must take immediate, significant action to ward off climate change and other threats to the quality of the air we all breathe.”

While the report examined data from 2016-2018, this 21st annual report also provides air pollution trends back to the first report. Learn more about the rankings in Washington, Baltimore, and Northern Virginia, as well as air quality across the region and the nation, in the 2020 “State of the Air” report at www.Lung.org/SOTA. For media interested in speaking with an expert about lung health, healthy air, and threats to air quality, contact Valerie Gleason at [email protected] or 717-971-1123.

For more information, contact:

Valerie Gleason
[email protected]

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