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North Carolina Air Quality Improved for Ozone Pollution, Finds 2020 ‘State of the Air’ Report

American Lung Association’s annual air quality report finds nearly half of Americans breathing unhealthy air; Twelve cities named to the cleanest cities list for ozone pollution

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 several cities earned improved rankings for the nation’s most widespread air pollutants—ozone and particle pollution—both of which can be deadly. Wilmington ranked fifth in the nation for the lowest annual levels of year-round particle pollution and was the only city in North Carolina to be named on all three cleanest cities lists.

The Charlotte-Concord metro area ranked for the ninth consecutive year on the cleanest cities list for short-term particle pollution.

Wilmington, Fayetteville, Lumberton, Sanford, Hickory, Lenoir, Morganton, New Bern, Morehead City, Rocky Mount, Wilson, and Roanoke Rapids recorded zero unhealthy air days and were named to the cleanest cities list for ozone 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.

“This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Clean Air Act, which has been responsible for dramatic improvements in air quality. North Carolina residents are seeing these benefits and breathing less unhealthy air compared to last year’s report, said American Lung Association Senior Director of Advocacy, June Deen.

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 in North Carolina

Compared to the 2019 report, the Raleigh-Durham-Cary metro area experienced fewer unhealthy days of high ozone in this year’s report and matched its best levels ever. The metro tied 153rd for most polluted city in the nation for ozone pollution.

The Greensboro-Winston-Salem-High Point metro area also recorded fewer unhealthy days and matched its best levels to tie 93rd in ozone pollution.

The Charlotte-Concord metro area tied for 52nd in the nation and improved with fewer unhealthy days of ozone but Mecklenburg County received a F grade as it recorded a weighted average of 4.7 days of unhealthy levels of ozone. Despite increases in recent years, Mecklenburg County’s progress is notable considering the period with the worst ozone levels – 1997-99, when the weighted average was 92.2 days.

The Asheville-Marion-Brevard metro tied 122nd as its levels remained the same from last year’s report.

“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 Deen. “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.

Particle Pollution in North Carolina

“State of the Air” 2020 found that year-round particle pollution levels in the Asheville-Marion-Brevard (T-157th) area were the lowest in the history of the report.

The Raleigh-Durham-Cary metro area improved again to its best levels and tied 73rd for most polluted city for year-round particle pollution in the report.

The Charlotte-Concord metro area (T-64th) and the Greensville-Winston-Salem-High-Point (T-69th) metro area recorded slightly worse levels of year-round particle pollution but still meet the national standard.

“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 Deen. Particle pollution comes from 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 Deen.

“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 Charlotte and Concord had zero days when short-term particle pollution reached unhealthy levels.

The Raleigh-Durham-Cary metro area tied 64th in the report and improved by recording fewer unhealthy air days. Greensboro-High Point-Winston-Salem tied 84th and remain the same from last year’s reports.

The Asheville-Marion-Brevard area tied 31st for most polluted city for short-term particle pollution and remains at its worst ever levels.

Many of these spikes in the Asheville-Marion-Brevard area were directly linked to weather patterns like drought or to events like wildfires, which are increasing in frequency and intensity in many areas due to climate change and high emissions from wood-burning devices.

“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 Deen “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 North Carolina 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 city rankings, as well as air quality across North Carolina 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 Britney Stewart at [email protected] or 470-233-7030.

For more information, contact:

Britney Stewart
470-233-7030
[email protected]

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