Delaware’s Air Quality Threat: Know How Pollution Affects You
Despite improvements to our air quality, air pollution remains a pervasive public health threat. And even people with healthy lungs can suffer the effects.
For most people, summertime is synonymous with hanging out by the pool, weekend cookouts and other outdoor activities.
But that’s not the case for New Castle County resident and lung disease sufferer Joan Youngblood. As the temperatures rise outside, so do the county’s ozone and particle pollution levels, aggravating Youngblood’s chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. She spends much of the hot-weather months indoors.
“Air quality does make a huge difference,” Youngblood says. “When it’s hot and humid, it’s really hard to breathe. I have to pace myself. I can’t do the things I used to do.”
Unfortunately, Youngblood’s summertime hibernations will be a way of life for the foreseeable future, based on a recent report from the American Lung Association.
This year, the association gave New Castle and Sussex counties failing grades for their ozone pollution levels. Kent County received a “D” for ozone, the first passing grade since 2008 when federal standards were lowered.
New Castle County received a “D” for its short-term particle pollution levels, while Kent and Sussex both received an “A.”
All three counties received passing grades for year-round particle pollution levels.
The Philadelphia-Camden-Vineland metropolitan area, which includes New Castle County, ranked No. 11 this year on the association’s national list of most polluted regions. In contrast, Dover appears on the association’s list of “Cleanest U.S. Cities for Short-Term Particle Pollution.”
The ratings are part of the American Lung Association’s annual State of the Air report, which assigns grades to counties across the United States based on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) color-coded Air Quality Index. This year’s grades were tallied using local data collected from official EPA air pollution monitoring stations during 2009, 2010 and 2011.
“The air in Delaware is certainly cleaner than when we started the State of the Air report 14 years ago,” says Deb Brown, president and CEO of the American Lung Association of the Mid-Atlantic. “Even though New Castle County experienced an increase in unhealthy days of high ozone, the air quality is still better compared to a decade ago.
“But the work is not done,” she continues, “We must set stronger health standards for pollutants and clean up sources of pollution throughout Delaware to protect the health of our citizens.”
On- and off-road vehicles, fossil-fueled power plants, gas stations, chemical plants and refineries are common contributors to air pollution.
Ozone, also known as smog, is formed when nitrogen oxide (NOX) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) combine with heat and sunlight, creating a highly reactive gas that’s harmful to breathe. (VOCs are gases emitted from fuels, paints and lacquers, cleaning products, pesticides, glues and other chemicals.)
Particle pollution, commonly called soot, is a mixture of tiny, airborne solid and liquid particles that affect lung function and shorten life.
Ozone and particle pollution levels are highest during the summer.
This is the 14th year in a row that New Castle and Sussex counties have received failing grades for their ozone pollution levels. Kent received a grade of “C” for ozone in 2007 and 2008 until the EPA lowered its national standards.
According to the 2013 report, New Castle County had a total of 26 “orange” days for ozone pollution during the three-year study period. Sussex had 13 “orange” days, while Kent had eight.
For particle pollution, New Castle had eight “orange” days, while Sussex and Kent had none.
A day is rated as “orange” when pollution reaches unhealthy levels for sensitive groups, including young children, older adults and people with chronic lung diseases.
There were two “red” days for ozone in New Castle and Sussex counties reported during the study period, and none in Kent. There were no “red” days for particle pollution in the state.
A day is rated as “red” when pollution levels may affect all people, even those in good health.
Driving Up Pollution Levels
In Delaware, on- and off-road vehicles (such as construction equipment) are the top two sources of in-state NOX and VOC emissions, the precursors to ozone pollution and contributors to particle pollution. According to the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control’s Division of Air Quality (DNREC), motor vehicles pumped more than 28,000 tons of NOX into Delaware’s skies during 2008, the latest year data is available. During the same year, vehicles emitted more than 14,000 tons of VOCs.
Despite the state’s efforts to encourage public transit and carpooling, more than 80 percent of New Castle County workers still drive alone to their jobs.
“The key challenge is that the march of suburban sprawl continues,” says William Swiatek, senior planner with the Wilmington Area Planning Council, the regional transportation planning agency for New Castle County and Cecil County, Md. “This keeps residents reliant on their cars, forces car ownership upon those who cannot afford it, triggers big highway projects and undercuts efforts to improve mass transit and other alternative modes, which rely heavily on density for success.”
But although motor vehicle use is up, ozone and particle pollution levels have continued a downward trend in recent years. The state government has done its part to reduce NOX and VOCs, including adopting tougher emissions standards for vehicles, inspired by those used in California.
“Transportation emissions are projected to continue improving through the 2030s,” Swiatek says. “Today’s cleaner engines and fuels account for this. With continued growth in vehicle travel, however, we are dependent on continual technological innovations to sustain air quality improvements beyond 2035.”
Based on projections, vehicle emissions are expected to rise during the 2030s when all known technological advances have been implemented.
A Powerful Contributor
Delaware’s electric-generation facilities also are top contributors to in-state air pollution. According to DNREC’s latest emissions report, 79 percent of the state’s annual NOX emissions can be attributed to power plants, including NRG’s Indian River facility near Millsboro.
But recent improvements have drastically cut emissions from Indian River.
“We closed down two coal units, one in 2010 and another in 2011,” says David Gaier, NRG spokesman. “We invested $360 million in environmental controls on unit 4, on top of initial investments of about $50 million in controls on both units 3 and 4. Finally, we’ll close down unit 3 by the end of 2013.
“Taken together, these steps reduce sulfur dioxide emissions by 91 percent, mercury by 90 percent and nitrogen oxides by 82 percent, and make the Indian River plant one of the cleanest coal plants in the country.”
The upgrades at Indian River were prompted by DNREC’s enactment of “regulation 1146” in 2006. Regulation 1146 set lower sulfur dioxide, NOX and mercury emissions limits for coal-fired and oil-fired power plants in Delaware.
NRG also recently converted its coal-fired plant in Dover to natural gas, reducing NOX emissions there by 92 percent.
Small State, Bigger Issue
For decades, the state has proactively enacted new regulations and standards intended to reduce ozone and particle pollution levels.
But the issue stretches far beyond Delaware’s borders. According to EPA data, more than 90 percent of the state’s ozone problem can be attributed to pollution that blows in from out of state.
“In many respects, Delaware is doing everything it can, but upwind sources, be they coal-fired power plants in the Ohio River Valley or vehicle-related pollution from the Washington-Baltimore-Northern Virginia metro area, are stymieing Delaware’s efforts,” explains Kevin M. Smith, director of environmental health with the American Lung Association of the Mid-Atlantic.
In 2011, the EPA issued the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, which ordered reductions of sulfur dioxide and NOX emissions from coal-fired power plants in 28 eastern states. A year later, the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the rule after it was challenged in court by EME Homer City Generation, a coal-fired power plant in southwestern Pennsylvania. Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would review the appeals court’s decision.
“We are supporting EPA’s effort in developing a transport rule and are also looking at our legal options should that effort fail,” says Ali Mirzakhalili, director of the DNREC’s air quality division.
“We continue to look for opportunities to reduce our own in-state pollution, but we cannot solve the problem without reducing the out-of-state pollution,” he adds. “It is something we cannot solve on our own.”
A Daily Struggle
In 1992, Youngblood was diagnosed with COPD, a progressive lung disease that makes it hard for her to breathe. Her condition has required her to use an oxygen tank for the past seven years.
“It’s a different lifestyle than it was 20 years ago,” Youngblood says. “There’s a lot more planning than it used to be.”
During the warm-weather months, pollution forecasts guide her daily activities. If there’s an “orange” or “red” day alert, Youngblood limits her exposure to the outdoors.
“If I don’t have to go out, I don’t,” she says. “I do a large degree of my shopping online. My husband does a lot of the shopping in the store for me, or a lot of times, he will drive me, so he can drop me right at the door of where I need to go.”
Youngblood isn’t alone. According to the American Lung Association, there are more than 36,000 adults living with COPD in Delaware. Another 68,000 adults and 17,000 children suffer from asthma.
Research has repeatedly shown that exposure to elevated ozone and particle pollution levels aggravates those conditions, leading to shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing, irregular heartbeat and other symptoms.
And last July, a major Danish study linked high air pollution levels to lung cancer.
“[The study’s conclusion] was not a surprise,” says Dr. Albert Rizzo, chief of pulmonary and critical care medicine with Christiana Care Health System. “It supported suppositions that we’d seen in smaller studies over the past 20 years.”
Rizzo counsels his patients to stay indoors when pollution levels are elevated. But healthy people are not immune to the effects of polluted air.
“People who have lung disease are affected by the air quality more so, but even people with healthy lungs are affected, especially if they are outdoors on those days and are doing more strenuous work,” he says.
A Nationwide Problem
According to the association, more than 131.8 million people in the United States—about 42 percent of the population—live in counties with unhealthy levels of either ozone or particle pollution.
“Air pollution remains a pervasive public health threat in the United States,” reads an association press release. “Safeguards are necessary to protect the health of nearly 132 million people living in counties with dangerous levels of either ozone or particle pollution that can cause wheezing and coughing, asthma attacks, heart attacks and premature death.”
Still, air quality continues to improve nationwide thanks to the federal Clean Air Act. According to the EPA, the act was responsible for preventing more than 160,000 premature deaths, 130,000 heart attacks and 1.7 million asthma attacks in 2010 alone.
The EPA routinely uses the latest research to recommend amendments to the act. Despite the progress that’s been made in reducing pollution levels nationally, the act continues to come under attack in Congress, as major corporations lobby for looser
“The evidence is clear that the Clean Air Act delivers significant health benefits,” Brown says. “Congress needs to continue to ensure that the provisions under the Clean Air Act are protected and are enforced. The EPA and every state must have adequate funding to monitor and protect our citizens from air pollution.”
• Pay attention to air-quality forecasts. Most weather reports will alert the public when ozone or particle pollution levels are high. Sign up for air-quality email alerts at airnow.gov or download the American Lung Association’s free “State of the Air” smartphone app.
• Avoid exercising near high-traffic areas.
• Avoid exercising outdoors when pollution levels are high.
• Reduce the use of wood-burning fireplaces and stoves.
• Don’t let anyone smoke indoors, and support efforts to make public places smoke-free.
• Support enhancements to the Clean Air Act by visiting fightingforair.org.
—Source: American Lung Association