R.I. Counties Fail When it Comes to Air Pollution

High ozone days in Rhode Island from 2015-2017. DNC indicates that there is no monitor-collecting data in the county. (American Lung Association)

High ozone days in Rhode Island from 2015-2017. DNC indicates that there is no monitor-collecting data in the county. (American Lung Association)

By ecoRI News staff

The American Lung Association’s 2019 “State of the Air” report found all three reporting counties in Rhode Island received failing grades for ozone pollution, and all three also reported an increase of year-round particle pollution.

The annual air-quality report card tracks exposure to unhealthful levels of ozone and particle pollution, both of which can be deadly.

“Rhode Island residents should be aware that we’re breathing unhealthy air, driven by emissions from power plants and extreme heat as a result of climate change,” said Jennifer Wall, director of advocacy for the American Lung Association in Rhode Island. “In addition to challenges here throughout Rhode Island, the 20th anniversary State of the Air report highlights that more than 4 in 10 Americans are living with unhealthy air.”

This year’s report covers the most recent quality-assured data available collected by states, cities, counties, tribes, and federal agencies from 2015-2017. Notably, those three years were the hottest recorded in global history.

The annual publication 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 short-term spikes in particle pollution.

Both ozone and particle pollution are dangerous to public health and can increase the risk of lung cancer, asthma attacks, cardiovascular damage, and developmental and reproductive harm.

Compared to the 2018 report, the counties of Kent and Providence recorded more bad air days for ozone, causing their 2018 D grades to drop to Fs. Washington County maintained a failing grade, but also experienced more bad ozone days than recorded in the previous report. All together, the three counties recorded a total of 41 bad “orange” and “red” ozone days from 2015-2017, compared to 29 from 2014-2016.

“Rhode Island has over 18,000 kids with pediatric asthma, over 91,000 adults with asthma, and over 55,000 adults with COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease),” Wall said. “Ozone can be harmful to anyone, but these populations are especially at risk.”

Warmer temperatures brought by climate change make ozone more likely to form and harder to clean up, according to the American Lung Association. This year’s report showed that ozone levels increased in most cities nationwide, in large part because of the record-breaking global heat experienced in the three years tracked in the report.

Particle pollution in Rhode Island from 2015-2017. DNC indicates that there is no monitor-collecting data in the county. (American Lung Association)

Particle pollution in Rhode Island from 2015-2017. DNC indicates that there is no monitor-collecting data in the county. (American Lung Association)

The 2019 report also found year-round particle pollution levels higher than the 2018 report in the three Rhode Island counties, which goes against the national trend showing progress reducing year-round levels of particle pollution. 

Providence County measured a significant increase.

“Particle pollution is made of soot or tiny particles that come from coal-fired power plants, diesel emissions, wildfires, and wood-burning devices,” Wall said. “These particles are so small that they can lodge deep in the lungs and trigger asthma attacks, heart attacks, and strokes. It’s concerning that our local year-round particle pollution levels have increased, and its likely due to regional and local weather patterns as well as some weather events caused by climate change.”

Similar results were found in both Massachusetts and Connecticut.