Connecticut still has the worst air pollution in the Northeast
Fairfield County is the 24th most ozone-polluted county in the United States, according to the American Lung Association’s 2016 State of the Air report.
Although this is an improvement from last year, when the county ranked 19th most ozone-polluted in the nation, it still has the worst air pollution in the entire Northeast.
Nonetheless, Wilton resident and American Lung Association of the Northeast Board Chair-Elect Jonathon Rosen said he was shocked to see Fairfield County’s failing grades and learn that it, once again, had the Northeast’s worst air quality.
“No one would assume Fairfield County would have the worst air condition in the region,” he told The Bulletin, “but the fact is that it illustrates that air pollution often travels long distances and settles over our area.”
Rosen said air pollution levels are affected by locally produced air pollution — “from power plants hundreds of miles away” — as well as topography and weather patterns.
“It’s really a combination of what’s produced here locally and what we get as it travels from west to east,” he said.
Although he does not know how long the county has had the Northeast’s worst air quality, Rosen said, he does know that Fairfield County has failed the American Lung Association’s ozone pollution test every year that it’s done its State of the Air report, which is now in its 17th year.
For the 2016 report, the American Lung Association used data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s Air Quality System to look at levels of ozone and particle pollution across the United States in 2012, 2013 and 2014.
According to this year’s report, more than 52.1% of people in the United States live in counties that have “unhealthful levels of either ozone or particle pollution.”
Rosen, who joined the American Lung Association 35 years ago after losing his father to emphysema and his son being diagnosed with asthma as an infant, said everyone should care about the findings of the State of the Air report because “air quality affects everyone.”
“There are certain populations like children, those with pre-existing respiratory conditions and seniors, who are especially vulnerable,” said Rosen.
With 945,438 people living in Fairfield County as of 2014, that means “nearly 1 million are at risk for poor air quality” health problems, said Rosen.
“Over 223,000 of those are children and over 135,000 are 65 and older,” he said. “These are at-risk populations when it comes to asthma and sensitivities to air quality.”
People who have never had lung disease or breathing problems, Rosen said, “really don't spend a lot of time thinking about breathing.”
However, “if you ask anyone suffering from asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), emphysema or chronic bronchitis if they think about breathing — especially on a bad air day,” he said, “the answer will be a resounding ‘yes.’”
Ozone, otherwise known as smog, is “one of the worst and most widespread air pollutants” that “irritates the lungs almost like a bad sunburn when inhaled,” said Rosen.
Ozone aggressively attacks lung tissue by reacting chemically with it and can cause serious health problems, including:
- Premature death;
- Asthma attacks;
- Lung cancer;
- Wheezing and coughing;
- Shortness of breath;
- Susceptibility to infections;
- Lung tissue redness and swelling;
- Possible reproductive, developmental and cardiovascular harm.
According to the report, more than half the people in the United States — 51.1% of the population — live in areas with unhealthful levels of ozone — a 10.4% increase from last year’s State of the Air report.
Not only did Fairfield County rank among the nation’s most ozone-polluted counties, but compared to Connecticut’s seven other counties, it had:
- The highest number of orange ozone days (64), a 12-day increase over the 2015 report.
- The highest number of red ozone days (18), 15 more than recorded in the 2015 report.
- The highest weighted average of high-ozone days (24.3), a 5.5 increase over last year’s report.
On orange days, according to Rosen, ozone pollution can cause serious health problems for people with lung disease, asthma, heart disease and diabetes, as well as the elderly and very young.
On red days, everyone may begin to feel symptoms of irritation and not breathe as well when spending time outdoors.
In the 2016 State of the Air report, all eight Connecticut counties received F grades for high-ozone days, meaning their residents are at risk for premature death, aggravated asthma, difficulty breathing, cardiovascular harm and lower birth weight.
Last year, six of the eight counties received F grades for high ozone days.
According the report, particle pollution refers to a mix of tiny solid and liquid particles in the air that pose serious health threats, including the interference of lung growth and performance.
The EPA has concluded that fine particle pollution poses the following serious health threats:
- Early death (both short-term and long-term exposure);
- Cardiovascular harm, such as heart attacks, strokes, heart disease, and congestive heart failure;
- Likelihood of respiratory harm, such as worsened asthma, worsened COPD and inflammation;
- Possible cancer and reproductive and developmental harm.
The State of the Air Report examines areas’ year-round particle pollution averages and levels over 24-hour periods of time. Fairfield County had the second-highest number of orange particle-pollution days (2) in the state between 2012 and 2014, receiving a grade of B.
According to the State of the Air Report, short-term increases in particle pollution have been linked to:
- Death from respiratory and cardiovascular causes, including strokes;
- Increased mortality in infants and young children;
- Increased numbers of heart attacks, especially among the elderly and in people with heart conditions;
- Inflammation of lung tissue in young, healthy adults;
- Increased hospitalization for cardiovascular disease, including strokes and congestive heart failure;
- Increased emergency room visits for patients suffering from acute respiratory ailments;
- Increased hospitalization for asthma among children;
- Increased severity of asthma attacks in children.
What can be done
Rosen said there are a number of things people can do to help improve Fairfield County’s air quality.
“We need to continue to lessen the burden of unhealthy air for our residents. The best way to do that is to lessen ozone pollution, which means we need to lessen emissions through comprehensive legislation at every level,” he said.
“It’s time our state adopted a clean power plan to reduce harmful emissions from power plants, which worsen the climate change.”
Most importantly, Rosen said, “we need every Connecticut resident to call their representatives and let them know that it’s time to implement a real air quality strategy.
“It’s time to get in touch with everyone who needs our vote and remind them that the quality of the air we breathe is very critical not only for our health, but for future employment,” he said.
To protect themselves from health problems associated with bad air quality, Rosen said people can check the Air Quality Index at airnow.gov each day to help prepare them for the day ahead.