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For Sixth Consecutive Year, Hampton Roads Posts Best Results Ever for All Three Measures of Air 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 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 that air quality in the Virginia Beach-Norfolk, VA-NC metro area continued to match or improve upon its previous year’s levels for the sixth consecutive year. In addition to Hampton City and Suffolk City’s ozone smog performance again remaining unchanged from the previous year’s report, Hampton Roads posted its fifth year in a row with zero unhealthy days of fine particle pollution. Ozone and particle pollution are the nation’s most widespread air pollutants, and both can be deadly.

For the year-round measure of fine particle pollution, the metro area improved to its best performance ever for its 10th consecutive year, ranking tied for 169th worst in the country out of 204 metro areas with data. And also for the 10th year in a row—eight of those being its best ever result—the metro area equaled or improved upon the previous year’s measure 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 22 counties and cities of Hampton Roads, ozone air pollution still occasionally placed the health of some 1,850,000 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. However, Hampton Roads 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 www.Lung.org/covid-19.

Ozone Pollution in the Virginia Beach-Norfolk, VA-NC Metro Area

Compared to the 2019 “State of the Air” report, Hampton Roads experienced the same number of unhealthy days of high ozone county as in the past three reports. Hampton City and Suffolk City both had “B” grades, earning the area a ranking of 135th worst in the country.

“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 Virginia Beach-Norfolk, VA-NC Metro Area

“State of the Air” 2020 found that measures of fine particle pollution in the two-state metro area continued to be very good. For the year-round measure of this pollutant, all three independent cities with data (Hampton, Norfolk, and Virginia Beach) posted a better long-term average than in the previous year’s report for the fifth year running. In fact, the metro area showed continued improvement to its best ever result for the 10th consecutive report.  All values in the current report met the air quality standard.

For the measure of daily spikes of fine particle pollution, the same three independent cities posted their best ever results for the eighth year in a row. They remained unchanged from last year’s report, all earning “A” grades for fine particle pollution for the fifth consecutive year, 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 Virginia Beach-Norfolk 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 Hampton Roads 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 and North Carolina, 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
717-971-1123
[email protected]

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