For 13th Year, Richmond Metro Area Posts Best Results Ever for Year-round Particle Pollution, 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 UPDATED trend charts and rankings for metropolitan areas and county grades WILL BE available at beginning at 12:01 a.m. EDT April 21, 2020.

The American Lung Association’s 2020 “State of the Air” report found that the year-round measure of fine particle pollution in the Richmond, VA metro area continued to match or improve upon its previous year’s levels for the 13th consecutive year. Its ranking for this measure tied for 157th worst in the country out of 204 metro areas with data. 

In addition, the Richmond metro area posted its eighth year in a row with zero unhealthy days of fine particle pollution. And although the area’s performance for ozone smog improved, Henrico County still recorded a “red” day when air quality was unhealthy for everyone, not only those in high risk groups. Ozone and particle pollution are the nation’s most widespread air pollutants, and both can be deadly.

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 Richmond metro area’s 17 counties and cities, ozone air pollution still occasionally placed the health of some 1,280,000 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. Despite all its good news, Richmond area residents still experienced some days when they breathed unhealthy air, 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

Ozone Pollution in the Richmond Metro Area

Compared to the 2019 “State of the Air” report, the Richmond metro area experienced fewer unhealthy days of high ozone county than in last year’s report, with Henrico County posting a weighted average of 1.8 days a year, improving to a “C” grade from last year’s “D,” but with that result still including a “red” day when air quality was unhealthy for everyone. The area’s ranking improved to 91st most polluted in the country from 71st 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.”

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 the Richmond Metro Area

“State of the Air” 2020 found that measures of fine particle pollution in the 13-county/4-city metro area continued to be very good. For the year-round measure of this pollutant, both counties with data (Charles City and Henrico) posted a better long-term average than in the previous year’s report for the 13th year running, as did the metro area as a whole. All values in the current report met the air quality standard.

For the measure of daily spikes of fine particle pollution, for the eighth consecutive year, those counties along with Chesterfield County all earned “A” grades for fine particle pollution, posting zero days with average concentrations in the unhealthy ranges, according to the air quality standard. That placed these counties on the list of cleanest counties in the country for this measure. It also placed the Richmond metro area among the nation’s cleanest cities.

“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.

“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 Richmond area 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 Virginia, as well as air quality across the region and the nation, in the 2020 “State of the Air” report at 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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