Failing mark for DC area: Poor air quality leads to missed work, school

The D.C. area got low marks for air quality, according to a report from the American Lung Association.

This year’s “State of the Air” report, found that although there were some improvements from previous years, the area’s ozone pollution gets an F — ranking 30th-most polluted in the country — and drops from a B to a C in particle pollution since last year — becoming the 63rd-worst in the U.S. for daily particle pollution measure. The area was ranked 75th most polluted for year-round particle pollution—much better than its ranking of 39th last year.

The worst ozone level in the region was reported in Harford County, Maryland. D.C. was worst in the region for the daily measure of fine particles, but still gets a passing C grade.

“Where we need the most improvement is certainly, with respect to ground level ozone smog, there are about half a dozen different counties in the region that get F grades,” Kevin Stewart, director emeritus of Environmental Health with the American Lung Association, said.

The report tracks Americans’ exposure to unhealthy levels of ground-level ozone air pollution (smog) and annual particle pollution (soot), as well as short-term spikes in particle pollution over a three-year period. This year’s report covers 2018-2020.

The smog and soot that are sometimes seen in the D.C. area can harm the health of residents, particularly children, older adults, pregnant people and those living with chronic disease, Aleks Casper, the association’s director of advocacy, said.

They can also cause chronic disease, leading to “premature death and serious health effects, such as asthma attacks, cardiovascular damage, developmental and reproductive harm, and particle pollution can also cause lung cancer,” Stewart said.

From 2018 to 2020, ozone levels were high enough to cause asthma attacks and breathing problems, leading to not only pain and suffering, Stewart said, but also lost work days and school days.

Another thing the report found are disparities of exposure to air pollution. For example, people of color were 61% more likely than white people to live in a county with a failing grade for at least one pollutant. They were also “3.6 times as likely to live in a county with a failing grade for all three of the measures” studied in the report, Stewart said.

However, the report found that some locations in the area get A’s and B’s in the measure of fine particle pollution.

“That’s something that we do recognize as as as good news to report,” Stewart said.

There are some things people can do to improve the air quality, and the American Lung Association is encouraging that.

One way is by taking action to improve clean air standards, which Stewart said aren’t strong enough to adequately protect public health. You can find out how on the American Lung Association’s website.

Another thing you can do are steps to minimize air pollution, which includes keeping your car tuned, taking mass transit, not wasting electricity or not burning trash openly.

“We want people to understand that they have in their power to control pollution, as well,” Stewart said.

WTOP’s Kristi King contributed to this report.

Abigail Constantino

Abigail Constantino started her journalism career writing for a local newspaper in Fairfax County, Virginia. She is a graduate of American University and The George Washington University.

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