As recent wildfires burned out of control in California, air quality suffered greatly. Air Quality Index readings showed “unhealthy” levels in many places, and were comparable to air quality in China’s most polluted cities.
For the most part, however, dangerously polluted air is rare in the United States.
But that wasn’t always the case. In the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s, large cities and surrounding metropolitan areas – including those in New Jersey - were often choked with smog and smoke. It wasn’t until the federal Clean Air Act was passed in 1970 that air quality began to turn around.
Mary Moore, a former trustee of NJ Conservation Foundation, recalls, “In the 1960's, I would look at the sky wondering why people described it as blue. It was not blue. It was gray. In the early 1970's, when I flew in a small plane exploring with the Foundation’s project Director Jim Roberts the future route for Patriots Path, I was shocked to see a dull gray pall of air pollution extending from Teterboro Airport to Morristown. That was why my sky was gray.”
So New Jersey’s air today is mostly blue, but what’s its quality?
The good news is that air quality in the Garden State - and most of the nation - has steadily improved over the past four and a half decades. The bad news is that two major air pollutants can still be found at unhealthy levels in this state we’re in.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the two air pollutants that pose the greatest threats to human health are airborne particles, also known as soot; and ground-level ozone, also known as smog. Coal-fired power plants, diesel engines, wildfires and wood-burning devices all emit microscopic particles in the air. These particles can lodge deep into the lungs and trigger asthma attacks, heart attacks and strokes, even causing lung cancer. Inhaling ozone causes an effect comparable to “sunburn of the lungs,” and can trigger coughing and asthma attacks.
New Jersey’s air protection programs are in the hands of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and NJ Department of Environmental Protection.
The EPA adopts National Ambient Air Quality Standards for common air pollutants, and states are responsible for attaining and maintaining those standards. The NJ Department of Environmental Protection manages air quality through ambient air monitoring, inventories of sources, emission reduction plans, rules, permits, stack testing, air quality modeling and risk assessment, and motor vehicle inspections.
The American Lung Association issues an annual report card, “State of the Air,” based on monitoring in hundreds of metropolitan areas. “State of the Air 2017” found continued improvements in air quality for ozone and year-round particle pollution, but an increase in dangerous particle pollution spikes.
New Jersey falls into two of the American Lung Association’s metropolitan areas: Northern counties are in the New York-Newark metropolitan area, while southern counties are in the Philadelphia-Reading-Camden metro area. Unfortunately, both regions made the lung association’s “25 worst” lists for air pollution.
The New York-Newark region was ninth on the list of most polluted metropolitan areas for ozone, and 22nd for year-round particle pollution. The Philadelphia-Reading-Camden metro area was ranked 22nd for high ozone days, 11th for year-round particle pollution, and 20th for short-term spikes in particle pollution.
Although these two metropolitan areas didn’t fare well on a national scale – after all, they’re compared to regions with far less traffic and industry - they’re getting better every year. Both have improved significantly, with fewer days of unhealthy ozone levels, fewer spikes of unsafe particle pollution and lower average particle concentrations in the air.
But even with these improvements, it’s critical that New Jersey continues to stringently enforce air quality standards and advance clean solar and wind energy.
When Governor-elect Murphy takes office in January, urge him and your state legislators to clean our air by investing in solar and wind energy, stopping unneeded fossil fuel projects like the proposed PennEast pipeline, and fully funding the Department of Environmental Protection. Equally important, urge them to make sure that emissions are reduced in communities like Camden and Newark, which are still burdened with decades-old industrial pollution.
You can check out your air quality right now! The EPA’s website, www.airnow.gov, shows the current Air Quality Index across the country. You can look at the national map or zoom in on New Jersey.
To see the American Lung Association’s “State of the Air 2017,” go to www.lung.org/assets/documents/healthy-air/state-of-the-air/state-of-the-air-2017.pdf.
If you have stories of what New Jersey’s air was like years ago or what it is like now, share them with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And to learn more about protecting New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org
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