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Rhode Island’s Air Quality Worsened 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; All three reporting counties in Rhode Island continue to earn failing grades for ozone

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 counties in the State of Rhode Island maintained failing grades for ozone pollution with both Providence and Kent recording more unhealthy days than in last year’s report. In contrast, all three reporting counties did report less short-term particle pollution, and only Kent reported a slight increase in long term particles – with all continuing to meet the national standard.  

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. Once again, the report found that nearly half of all Americans were exposed to unhealthy air in 2016-2018. In Rhode Island, ozone pollution placed the health of its 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. Terrance Healey, Director of Thoracic Radiology at Rhode Island Hospital. "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. However, Rhode Island residents are breathing more unhealthy air driven by extreme heat as a result of climate change, placing our health and lives at risk,” said Jennifer Wall, Director of Advocacy for the American Lung Association in Rhode Island. “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 Boston-Worcester-Providence metro area, which includes the counties of Bristol, Kent, Newport, Providence, and Washington, worsened for the second year in a row, ranking 38th most polluted metro area for ozone, and showing an increase in unhealthy days. Both Kent and Providence followed suit with increased unhealthy days, and while Washington slowed a slight improvement, all three maintained their failing grades for ozone.

“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 Healey. “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
“State of the Air” 2020 found that year-round particle pollution levels in Providence were slightly improved, although it continues to be the most polluted county for year-round particles in the Boston-Worcester-Providence metro area. Washington County showed improvement, whereas Kent slightly worsened. Both continue to pass national standards.

“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 Healey. 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 Wall.

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 Providence had fewer days when short-term particle pollution reached unhealthy levels, raising its grade from a B to an A.

“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 Wall. “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 Rhode Island 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 Rhode Island 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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