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Report links air quality, climate, and fossil fuels


As human-influenced climate change makes the world warmer, hot days are impairing the air quality in urban areas across the United States – including in Monroe County.

That's the thrust of the American Lung Association's recently released 2019 State of the Air report. The annual report, marking its 20th year, grades the nation's metro areas on ozone and particle pollution, both of which pose threats to people with asthma, cardiovascular disease, and other health problems.

For its reports, the Lung Association uses the most recent three years of available US Environmental Protection Agency data. The 2019 analysis uses figures from 2015 through 2017, with the data coming from EPA air monitoring stations.

The report shows that particle pollution hasn't been a problem for Monroe County in about a decade. Particle pollution typically comes from sources like diesel truck exhaust, forest fires, and coal-burning power plants. State and federal regulations have led to substantial reductions in particle pollution in New York's cities.

But Monroe County's ozone pollution grade dropped from a "B" in last year's report to a "C" in this year's, which indicates an upward tick in the number of days with elevated ozone levels. Between 2015 and 2017, Monroe County had five days where ozone levels rose to the point where they posed a risk for "sensitive populations" such as children, the elderly, and people with respiratory or cardiovascular conditions, the report says.

Ground-level ozone is formed when certain chemicals in fossil-fuel exhaust react with sunlight, and hot weather encourages ozone production. The relationship between heat and ozone production provides some important context for Monroe County's increase in high-ozone days.

"This year's report covered the three warmest years in modern history and demonstrates the increased risk of harm from air pollution that comes despite other protective measures being in place," says the introduction to State of the Air 2019.

In another section, the report says that ozone pollution has worsened in much of the US. It also notes that from 1970 to 2017, Americans almost doubled the number of miles they drove and the energy they consumed. It also notes that carbon dioxide emissions increased 23 percent from 1970 to 2017, although a graph in the report shows emissions levels turned downward starting in 2007.

The report highlights important questions about how to maintain air quality in a warming world, says Sue Hughes-Smith, a Brighton resident, climate activist, and adjunct environmental health professor at SUNY Brockport.

"The only way we're going to be able to do it is to eliminate more and more sources of air pollution," Hughes-Smith says. That means getting electricity from renewable sources instead of from fossil fuel-powered plants, as well as switching to electric vehicles and efficient heating system powered by electricity, she says.

Hughes-Smith and other climate activists say those same shifts are important for addressing climate change as a whole.

The Lung Association report also takes aim at Trump administration actions it says will harm air quality and exacerbate climate change. It emphasizes the need to protect and enforce the federal Clean Air Act, which it says the administration is weakening and undermining. It criticizes the administration's proposals to roll back vehicle fuel economy and emissions requirements and to undo an Obama-era initiative to cut carbon emissions from power plants.

And the report blasts a move by EPA officials to remove independent scientists from the agency's scientific advisory committee on air quality and to limit the research that agency scientists are allowed to consider.

"Cleaning up air pollution requires a strong, coordinated effort on the part of our federal, state, tribal, and local leaders," the report says. "Stopping or retreating cannot be an option."