Ozone Pollution Continues to Threaten the Health of New Yorkers, Finds 2020 ‘State of the Air’ Report

American Lung Association’s annual air quality report finds nearly half of Americans breathing unhealthy air

Editor’s Note: The full report, as well as trend charts and rankings for metropolitan areas and county grades are available at Lung.org/sota

The American Lung Association’s 2020 “State of the Air” report found New York State has earned mixed rankings for the nation’s most widespread air pollutants—ozone and particle pollution—both of which can be deadly. In fact, the report found this was one of the best years on record for the still failing New York City metro area, recording fewer bad ozone days, and its lowest ever ranking for year-round particle pollution.  Unfortunately, the positive trend was not universal, leaving counties Albany, Monroe, Wayne, Onondaga and Essex with declining grades for ozone, while Manhattan (New York County) was the only county in the state that dropped a grade for short term 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. As the country continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, improving air quality is more important than ever – as studies have shown air pollution harms lung health, and emerging research links long-term exposure to particle pollution to increases in the death rate among COVID-19 patients. This year’s report found that nearly half of all Americans were exposed to unhealthy air in 2016-2018. In New York State, ozone pollution placed the health of over 8.6 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.

"For many Americans, the COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated just how important lung health really is," said Dr. Payel Gupta, a New York City-based allergist and volunteer medical spokesperson for American Lung Association. "There is no short cut, no alternative to breathing.  We must do more to protect our lungs from anything that puts our ability to breathe at risk, be it a virus, tobacco smoke, or air pollution."

“This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Clean Air Act, which has been responsible for dramatic improvements in air quality. While New Yorkers  in some areas are breathing slightly improved air compared to last year’s report, more than 4 in 10 New Yorkers live in counties with failing levels of ozone pollution placing our health and lives at risk,” said American Lung Association’s National Assistant Vice President for State Public Policy Michael Seilback. “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 Lung.org/covid-19.

Ozone Pollution
Compared to the 2019 report, the New York City metro area, as a whole experienced fewer unhealthy days of high ozone in this year’s report, causing its rank to go from the 10th worst polluted, to the 12th. However, the report continues to show that over 22.6 million residents in the New York Metro area are being exposed to unhealthy air. (Our report uses the New York-Newark, NY-NJ-CT-PA Consolidated Statistical Area as defined by the U. S. Office of Management and Budget, which includes Bronx, Dutchess, Kings, Nassau, New York, Orange, Putnam, Queens, Richmond, Rockland, Suffolk, Ulster and Westchester counties in New York; as well as Bergen, Essex, Hudson, Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex, Monmouth, Morris, Ocean, Passaic, Somerset, Sussex, and Union counties in New Jersey; Fairfield, Litchfield, and New Haven, Connecticut; and Monroe and Pike County, Pennsylvania.)

Other New York State metro areas were ranked as follows in the 2020 report:

  • Albany-Schenectady tied for 106th most polluted for ozone, a slightly better ranking than last year’s 99th, with largely unchanged levels of ozone.
  • Buffalo-Cheektowaga-Olean tied for 74th most polluted for ozone, improved from 55th last year, with less unhealthy days.
  • Elmira-Corning was ranked 135th most polluted, improved from 123rd last year (tied with Ithaca-Cortland)
  • Ithaca-Cortland was ranked 122nd this year, one place worse than 123rd last year
  • Rochester-Batavia-Seneca Falls tied for 74th most polluted for ozone, a worse ranking than last year’s 86th, thanks to its 3rd consecutive year with more unhealthy days. 
  • Syracuse-Auburn saw its ranking drop from 123rd to 106th most polluted for ozone this year due to more unhealthy days.
  • Utica-Rome ranked 106th this year, improved from 99th last year.

“Ozone pollution can harm even healthy people, but is particularly dangerous for children, older adults and people with lung diseases like COPD or asthma,” said Dr. Gupta. “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.”

“New York State is a mixed bag for ozone, with some areas improving, and others worsening. These grades and rankings should serve as a reminder that while air quality has greatly improved in the last fifty years, New York’s air quality is still among the worst in the nation, and there is a lot of work to do,” said Seilback.

Counties that recorded a positive change of grades for ozone pollution from last year’s report include
Erie and Chautauqua which went from Fs to Ds and Orange which went from a C to a B.  Albany’s grade declined from a B in last year’s report to a C,  Monroe and Wayne counties saw their grades slip from Cs to Ds, and Onondaga and Essex lost their Bs to Cs. For the second consecutive year, Suffolk County has the worst ozone in the state.

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.

Particle Pollution
“State of the Air” 2020 found that year-round particle pollution levels throughout New York State were lower than in last year’s report. All New York State metro areas with data for year-round particles, including the New York City metro area improved their rankings with Buffalo-Cheektowaga-Olean reaching its lowest level ever of year-round particles, and Syracuse-Auburn tying for 7th cleanest city in this category.

“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 Dr. Gupta.  

Seilback continued, “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.”

“State of the Air” 2020 also tracked short-term spikes in particle pollution, which can be extremely dangerous and even lethal. The report found that Manhattan (New York County) was the only county in the state whose grade dropped from an A to a B due to more days when short-term particle pollution reached unhealthy levels.  Albany, Buffalo, Elmira, Rochester and Syracuse metro areas all ranked among the cleanest cities for short-term particle pollution with no unhealthy days. The New York City metro area ranked 84th worst in the nation, with an unchanged level from last year.

“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 Seilback. “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 New York State 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 air quality across New York State and the nation, in the 2020 “State of the Air” report at Lung.org/sota. For media interested in speaking with an expert about lung health, healthy air, and threats to air quality, contact Jennifer Solomon at [email protected] or 516-680-8927.

For more information, contact:

Jennifer Solomon
(516) 680-8927
[email protected]

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