News & Politics

DC’s Air Gets an "F"

We're breathing too much ozone, the American Lung Association says.

Photograph by Flickr user Alex Barth.

On Wednesday, the American Lung Association released its State of the Air 2015 report, handing DC an “F” for ozone air pollution. The District did better in other categories, with a “C” in 24-hour particle pollution—the number of “bad air” days in a year—and a simple ‘pass’ in average annual particle pollution.

As mediocre as the report is, the city showed improvement from last year. “We’re happy we’re moving in the right direction,” says Kevin Stewart, director of environmental health for the association’s Mid-Atlantic division. But, he adds, “a C and an F, that’s not exactly the best report card.”

Based on data collected by government air monitors between 2011 and 2013, the report grades counties on levels of the “powerful respiratory irritant” ozone, an essential substance in the stratosphere, which when found at ground-level can cause something akin to a sunburned lung. The State of the Air also grades based on annual and daily fine particle pollution, which comes from “any type of combustion source,” according to Stewart. Smoke, coal, and other types of tiny particulate matter can lodge in the lungs causing damage.

Even though DC received middling grades in the latter two categories, the Lung Association says the Environmental Protection Agency’s standards, which they use for consistency, are too lenient. According to Stewart, the levels set by the EPA can be especially hazardous for high-risk groups, like asthma and lung-disease sufferers.

Stewart says DC has a higher-than-average rate of children with asthma, about 1 in 7, and that members of these sensitive groups are more common than many expect. “When you put all those sensitive groups together, we’re talking something in the order of half the population” that will fit into one or more of those categories, he says.

Those defined as “sensitive” aren’t just ill; they’re old, they’re young, and they’re in poverty—all groups which feel the affects of dirty air more than the average person. Though the association doesn’t crunch data within counties, environmental justice advocates say pollution disproportionately affects certain neighborhoods, as it does in DC, because of healthcare accessibility and environmental exposure.

The association hopes by providing its grades, residents will understand and defend the importance of the legislation Stewart says has improved air since the beginning of this century, even as climate change exacerbates pollution’s effects. “We want the public to see the value of why we have the Clean Air Act, and why we have air pollution standards.”