York County gets mixed results in new air quality report

Noel Miller
York Dispatch

York County took a step forward in combating ozone air pollution from 2019 to 2021 — but it also took a step backward in handling fine particle air pollution, according to this year’s State of the Air Report.

Ozone pollution, sometimes called smog, is created by chemical reactions between nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds in the presence of heat and sunlight. According to the EPA, it's most commonly sourced by combustion-engine vehicles, chemical and power plants and other industrial activities.

Ozone pollution, sometimes called smog, is created by chemical reactions between nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds in the presence of heat and sunlight.

Particle pollution, meanwhile, consists of a mix of solids and liquids in the air from a variety of similar sources, as well as from wildfires and wood stoves.

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Where does York County fall in this report?

In the ALA's 2023 report, York County saw its grades for ozone and particle pollution switch places.

The good news? York got its first A grade for ozone pollution ever, according to Kevin Stewart, ALA's Mid-Atlantic director of environmental health.

What that means in real terms, Stewart said, is that over the three years included in the report the county saw no elevated ozone days above the current federal standards.

When it comes to particle pollution, the county received a B grade due to two orange category days for the pollutant under the federal Air Quality Index. The orange designation means that conditions “unsafe for sensitive groups,” such as older residents or those with respiratory conditions.

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“Progress is progress, and we know that’s something we are looking forward to seeing continue,” Stewart said.

Although the diluted particles from wildfires thousands of miles away may not be large or in the form of dark smoke clouds, they still harm air quality. The wildfires in western states and Canada have been significant enough to transport air pollution across the nation and impacted air quality all over the East Coast, Steward said. However, if wildfires were the only cause for York’s increased particle pollution, then the many East Coast metro areas would have similar results.

FILE - Steam billows from a coal-fired power plant Nov. 18, 2021, in Craig, Colo. The Supreme Court on Thursday, June 30, 2022, limited how the nation’s main anti-air pollution law can be used to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. By a 6-3 vote, with conservatives in the majority, the court said that the Clean Air Act does not give the Environmental Protection Agency broad authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants that contribute to global warming. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

Several local factors come into play with this year’s particle pollution grade. According to the report, Cumberland, Dauphin and Lebanon counties all had worse grades than York County.

What can be done to combat air pollution?

Zachary Barber, a clean air advocate with Penn Environment, said there's no single way to reduce air pollution. Likewise, it's difficult to identify a single reason for York's air quality improving in one area while deteriorating in another.

"To help get those grades back up, supporting those clean air solutions will kind of lead to a rising tide that will lift all boats," he said.

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These solutions, Barber said, include both individual and governmental investment in cleaner energy sources and transportation infrastructure that reduces the reliance on fossil fuels. Local communities and municipalities can support clean air by investing in electric vehicle charging infrastructure, solar energy and other renewable energy sources.

"Unfortunately," he said, "since many of the sources of these emissions are big, systemic problems, many of the solutions will require bigger collective action."

On an individual level, switching to electric vehicles can help but is not always an affordable or accessible option.

Another way to support clean air is through activism. The American Lung Association has a petition available at lung.org/sota to "encourage the federal government to do more to clean up the air and also set stronger emission standards for cars and trucks," Stewart said. The petition also calls for stronger national ambient air quality standards for particle and ozone pollution.

To see the full report and learn more about local air quality, visit www.lung.org/research/sota

— Reach Noel Miller at NMiller3@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @TheNoelM.