HCN News & Notes

Massachusetts Air Quality Worsened for Ozone, According to Report

BOSTON — In its 2020 “State of the Air” report, the American Lung Assoc. found the Boston metro area ranked as the 38th-most polluted city in the nation for ozone, with more unhealthy days than reported in last year’s report. Eight out of the 14 reporting counties throughout the state followed suit, showing more unhealthy days of ozone, while the state did show some improvements for long- and short-term particle pollution.

The annual air-quality ‘report card’ tracks Americans’ exposure to unhealthful levels of particle pollution and ozone during a three-year period. As the country continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, the American Lung Assoc. notes, improving air quality is more important than ever, as studies have shown air pollution harms lung health, and emerging research links long-term exposure to particle pollution to increases in the death rate among COVID-19 patients. Once again, the report found that nearly half of all Americans were exposed to unhealthy air in 2016-18.

“For many Americans, the COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated just how important lung health really is,” said Dr. Andrea McKee, director of the CT Lung Screening Program at Lahey Hospital and Medical Center and volunteer medical spokesperson for American Lung Assoc. “There is no short cut, no alternative to breathing.  We must do more to protect our lungs from anything that puts our ability to breathe at risk, be it a virus, tobacco smoke, or air pollution.”

Each year, “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. 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.

The report analyzes particle pollution in two ways: through average annual particle pollution levels and short-term spikes in particle pollution. Both ozone and particle pollution 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 can also cause lung cancer, and new research links air pollution to the development of serious diseases, such as asthma and dementia.

Compared to the 2019 report, the Boston-Worcester-Providence metro area experienced more unhealthy days of high ozone in this year’s report, leaving it with a ranking of 38th-most polluted for ozone, compared to 43rd last year. Four Massachusetts counties — Dukes, Worcester, Plymouth, and Essex — all saw decreased grades for ozone, while grades were maintained in Barnstable (F), Hampden (F), Windham (F), Bristol (F), Norfolk (D), Suffolk (C), Franklin (C), and Middlesex (B). Only Hampshire saw an improved grade, from F to D. Both Nantucket and Berkshire had incomplete grades.

“Ozone pollution can harm even healthy people, but is particularly dangerous for children, older adults, and people with lung diseases like COPD or asthma,” McKee said. “Today, more than one in three Massachusetts residents live in a county with failing air pollution. 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.”

“State of the Air” 2020 found that year-round particle pollution levels in Boston were slightly lower than in last year’s report, leading to a ranking of 64th-most polluted for year-round particles. All reporting counties continued to meet the national standard, although Plymouth and Suffolk did see slight increases in year-round particle levels from last year.