Courtesy of the American Lung Association

HARTFORD, CT — Every county in Connecticut continued to earn failing grades for ozone pollution in the American Lung Association’s 2020 “State of the Air” report, in spite of marginally less unhealthy days.

Connecticut counties are also included in 3 separate metro areas in the report: Boston (includes Windham County), New York City (includes Fairfield, Litchfield and New Haven counties) and Hartford (includes Hartford, Middlesex, New London and Tolland counties), all of which ranked on the most-polluted cities list for ozone.

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 from 2016 to 2018.

“This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Clean Air Act, which has been responsible for dramatic improvements in air quality. Connecticut residents are breathing less unhealthy air compared to last year’s report, but there is still far too much ozone pollution, placing our health and lives at risk,” said Ruth Canovi, director of advocacy for the American Lung Association in Connecticut.

Over the past month during the COVID-19 pandemic emissions have dropped, but it’s unclear what the long-term impact will be and whether the northeast will sustain it.

“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 through short-term spikes in particle pollution. Both 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 also can 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, these 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 the report does not cover data from 2020, against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, the impact of air pollution on lung health is of heightened concern.

Compared to the 2019 report, all but one of the Connecticut counties experienced fewer unhealthy days of high ozone in this year’s report.  Windham experienced more unhealthy ozone days in this year’s report. The Hartford-East Hartford metro area ranked 25th most-polluted for ozone in the nation, a slightly improved ranking from last year’s 23rd place.  Fairfield County was deemed the most polluted county in the New York City metro area (which ranked 12th most-polluted for ozone city in the nation) and has the highest ozone readings in the eastern U.S..

“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,”  said Jane Reardon, pulmonary clinical nurse specialist and a volunteer for the American Lung Association in Connecticut.

The analysis 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 reports. 

“State of the Air” 2020 found that year-round particle pollution levels in every reporting county in Connecticut improved and continued to pass national standards. All three relevant metro areas also improved for year-round particles. 

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 Canovi.

“State of the Air” 2020 also tracked short-term spikes in particle pollution, which can be extremely dangerous and even lethal. The report found unchanged levels of short-term particle pollution from last year’s report in Connecticut’s counties, as well as the New York and Hartford metro areas, while Boston improved to rank for first time as one of the cleanest cities for short-term particle pollution. All counties in Connecticut received As in this category. 

“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 Canovi. “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 Connecticut 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.”