U.S. air quality is slipping after years of improvement | TribLIVE.com
Health

U.S. air quality is slipping after years of improvement

Associated Press
1309218_web1_1309218-cd1440458fb34f899e60e05644042929
AP
People wear masks while walking through the Financial District in the smoke-filled air in San Francisco, as authorities issued an unhealthy air quality alert for parts of the San Francisco Bay Area as smoke from a massive wildfire drifts south. In 2017 and 2018, the nation had more polluted air days than just a few years earlier, federal data shows. While it remains unclear whether this is the beginning of a trend, health experts say it’s a troubling development.
1309218_web1_AP19168762954766
AP
This file photo from July 14, 2010 shows smoke pouring from the United States Steel Corp.’s Clairton Coke Works in Clairton, Pa. A fire at U.S. Steel’s massive coke plant outside Pittsburgh knocked a key pollution control system offline Monday, June 17, 2019. It triggered a health warning as officials monitored the air around the plant for signs of a release of toxic sulfur dioxide. It was the second fire since December at the coke works, the largest facility of its kind in the United States. The plant turns coal into coke, one of the raw materials of steel.
1309218_web1_1309218-621f92409ef448f5b79316c22e996bbf
AP
This combination of Dec. 13 and 17, 2018 photos shows the Utah State Capitol during clear and an inversion day in Salt Lake City. Inversions hover over Salt Lake City as cold, stagnant air settles in the bowl-shaped mountain basins, trapping tailpipe and other emissions that have no way of escaping to create a brown, murky haze the engulfs the metro area. After decades of getting ever cleaner, America’s air quality seems to be stagnating. In 2017 and 2018, the nation had more polluted air days than just a few years earlier, federal data shows. While it remains unclear whether this is the beginning of a trend, health experts say it’s a troubling development.

After decades of improvement, America’s air may not be getting any cleaner.

Over the last two years the nation had more polluted air days than just a few years earlier, federal data shows. While it remains unclear whether this is the beginning of a trend, health experts say it’s troubling to see air quality progress stagnate.

There were 15% more days with unhealthy air in America both last year and the year before than there were on average from 2013 through 2016, the four years when America had its fewest number of those days since at least 1980.

President Trump has repeatedly claimed just the opposite, saying earlier this month in Ireland: “We have the cleanest air in the world, in the United States, and it’s gotten better since I’m president.”

That’s not quite the case. There were noticeably more polluted air days each year in the president’s first two years in office than any of the four years before, according to new Environmental Protection Agency data analyzed by The Associated Press.

The Trump administration is expected to replace an Obama-era rule designed to limit emissions from electric power plants on Wednesday. Called the Clean Power Plan, it would have gradually phased out coal-burning power plants that emit both air pollutants and heat-trapping gases responsible for climate change.

Air quality is affected by a complex mix of factors, both natural and man-made. Federal regulations that limit the emissions of certain chemicals and soot from factories, cars and trucks have helped dramatically improve air quality over recent decades. In any given year, however, air quality can be affected by natural variations. That may be what’s behind the stalled progress, scientists say.

“What you’re seeing is a flattening off of progress as opposed to a major change in the wrong direction,” said former deputy EPA administrator Bob Perciasepe, president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.

But Trump is moving to loosen regulations on coal-fired power plants and cars that scientists credit for cleaner air, and he appears to be less stringent about enforcing current rules, according to data obtained by environmental advocates through the Freedom of Information Act.

Scientists say that it is too early to see the effects of changes in environmental policy of the Trump administration, which took office in January 2017.

But they say looser restrictions and lax enforcement would almost certainly reverse the gains that have been made in recent decades, potentially turning what has so far been a modest, two-year backslide into a dangerous trend.

“Today it feels like the future of our kids and our country is at stake,” said former Obama EPA chief Gina McCarthy, now director of the Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard School of Public Health. “We do not have the cleanest air and we have not crossed the finish line when it comes to pollution.”

The EPA quietly posted new air quality data online last month that shows a recent uptick in polluted days.

Five hundred and thirty-two American metro areas reported a total of 4,134 days in 2018 when the official air quality index passed 100, which means it is unhealthy for people with heart and lung disease, the elderly and the very young. That’s about 15% more bad air days per city than the average for 2013 to 2016, America’s clean air heyday.

The worst of the bad air days jumped even more. On average, in 2017 and 2018 there were nearly 140 times when a city’s air pollution reached the worst two categories — “very unhealthy” and “hazardous” — with the air quality index greater than 200. That’s more than two-and-a-half times the average of nearly 55 from 2013 to 2016. Last year, Riverside, California, topped the nation with 13 days in the worst two air quality categories and had the most bad air days of all types: 173.

About 100,000 Americans each year die prematurely because of polluted air, studies show.

El Paso, Texas, saw one of the biggest increases in bad air days from the mid-2010s among metro areas with at least 750,000 people. Like the rest of the country, El Paso has seen huge improvements in recent decades, but things have turned worse recently, and people say they notice.

El Paso first grade teacher Tonya Olivas said she’s had to watch her son Joey more carefully. “If he’s having issues with coughing excessively because of his asthma, I will pull him out of recess and P.E. I won’t let him go outside,” she said.

El Paso averaged more than 200 bad air days a year in the 1980s. That dropped steadily to just under 14 a year on average from 2010 to 2016, then ticked up to an average of about 20 over the past two years.

In an email, the EPA told The Associated Press the increase in unhealthy air days in 2017 “is largely associated with wildfires” in the west and it is studying 2018 before officially announcing its annual air trend data.

Air pollution experts agree wildfires likely have had a role, along with random variation, a stronger economy which leads to more consumption of fuels, and a changing climate. Higher temperatures increase the chances for fires and smog.

Even with the recent stagnation, there are far fewer bad air days now than in the early 2000s, 1990s and 1980s. Perciasepe said what’s happening now is a “tug of war” between the worsening effects of warming on air quality and cleaner air from less coal use and more efficient cars.

But if regulations on coal plants, cars and other emissions are relaxed, the air quality will deteriorate, said Carnegie Mellon University engineering professor Neil Donahue.

“There is zero reason to expect any other outcome,” he said.

Categories: News | Health Now
TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.