Closer Look: York area's air improving, but could be better, annual report says

Tina Locurto
York Dispatch

Recent reports point to local air pollution levels decreasing, though many scientists and health professionals said much work still needs to be done in improving the area's poor air quality.

The Harrisburg, York and Lebanon metro area — for the second consecutive year  — received a passing grade under the Environmental Protection Agency's current standards, according to the American Lung Association's annual State of the Air report, which was released Tuesday.

More:Coronavirus shutdown lowers air pollution almost overnight, scientists say

The 2020 report, which grades counties based on levels of ozone, smog and particle pollution, ranked York County with an A grade in one category, signifying zero days for the average measure of daily spikes in fine particle pollution. The county received a C for ozone pollution.

Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA is required to set national standards for ambient air quality that analyze an area's exposure to pollutants, including carbon monoxide, ozone and particle pollution, said John Graham, an atmospheric chemist working for the Clean Air Task Force, a Boston-based nonprofit looking to technology to reduce the effects of climate change. 

Graham said the Harrisburg area violated the ozone standard before 2008 but currently meets it. In 2016, the Harrisburg area had ozone levels of 0.065 parts per million, according to data from the EPA.

The current EPA standard for primary and secondary ozone pollution is 0.070 ppm in a span of eight hours, according to the National Ambient Air Quality Standards website.

“We’ve come a long way,” Graham said. “The amount of emissions that come out of tailpipes is night and day.”

Graham said it's important to recognize how the standards are established. 

“My definition of adequate is different than yours," Graham said. "We have a sense in our lives of the things that are harmful, if we accept that risk or not. Some of it is our own personal sense of what's acceptable."

>>Like what you’re reading? Not a subscriber? Click here for full access to The York Dispatch’s hard-hitting news, local sports and entertainment.

Closer Look

The most recent ozone standard was set by the EPA in 2012, and the agency is in the process of reviewing current standards and should have new guidelines set before the end of 2020. 

Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA is required to evaluate new standards every five years, Graham said. In the past, the EPA has struggled to meet that timeline given the volume of information, which led the current administration to streamline the process, he added.

“There's a fight going on in the government at that level,” Graham said. "By streamlining and removing people out of process to make it more efficient, you end up losing a lot of that information and the people who know all of those details."

Annual reports from the American Lung Association show clear improvement, said Kevin Stewart, the director of environmental health for the ALA, adding that "individuals themselves have some power to change their own behaviors."

Especially for individuals at a high risk for health complications such as asthma or heart disease, Stewart said, there are several resources available that aid in the knowledge of current air quality standards.

One website he recommended was airnow.gov, which provides up-to-date forecasts for the next day's air quality and how high pollution levels are going to be.

Stewart said common sense is also a major key in protecting the air. An example he gave is if it is an "ozone action day," meaning there are high levels of ozone in the air, individuals should consider not engaging in activities that contribute to air pollution, such as mowing the lawn.

“The more we can get ahead of air pollution exposure, the better," Stewart said. “If enough people collectively do that, they're reducing their own exposure.”

This is part of a monthly series at The York Dispatch. Each month, Dispatch staffers will delve into a new topic that we believe deserves a Closer Look.

— Reach Tina Locurto at tlocurto@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @tina_locurto.