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Greater Richmond’s air quality better than most other cities, but not without risks

Skyline behind river and greenery
Crixell Matthews
Richmond's skyline in 2019 from across the James River. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

This story was produced with assistance from the Public Media Journalists Association Editor Corps funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people. 

Air quality in the Greater Richmond area remains clean compared to similar regions around the country - but there’s still room for improvement.

The American Lung Association released its yearly State of the Air report this month. It compiles local data from 2018-2020 on two of the most widespread air pollutants: ozone smog and fine particle pollution.

According to the report, some areas in Virginia, like Norfolk and Virginia Beach have among the cleanest air in the nation when it comes to smog and particulates. The Greater Richmond area is not quite as good as those places, but it’s improving. This year, the area got its best daily smog rating.

The year-round particulate rating has not improved, however. Researchers say that’s because the City of Richmond has previously not provided sufficient data for a count. Adding it brings the area’s nationwide ranking down, but doesn’t necessarily indicate a setback.

Ground-level ozone pollution, commonly known as smog, is a strong irritant that inflames the lining of the lungs. It’s formed from byproducts of combustion - like from car exhaust - and sunlight.  Short-term exposure can make people cough and have trouble breathing, and it can put them at higher risk of respiratory infections like pneumonia. Short term impacts are especially harmful to those with conditions like COPD and asthma, which can be triggered by smog. Some reports even show poor air quality can result in increased ER visits.

Fine particles are also produced by combustion from cars, factories, fires and more. They come in a range of sizes - from larger particles like smoke and pollen that can irritate and inflame the air passages, to “ultrafine” particles that can slip through the lung’s air sacs, into the bloodstream and settle in other organs.

Kevin Stewart, director of Environmental Health for the American Lung Association’s mid-Atlantic region, said it’s important to remember just how many people are at risk of harm.

“We don't mean simply, you know, a rare person out there who's extra sensitive,” Stewart said. “We're talking about children, seniors, people with chronic diseases like asthma, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, heart disease, people who also are at risk because they're pregnant, or because they live in poverty, or they are people of color. We know that those different categories of the population amount to well over half the population.”

Stewart emphasized the importance of bringing emissions down to reduce the impact on at-risk people.

Richmond has a new draft plan to cut citywide emissions nearly in half by 2030. Stewart said that’s important, but “it is only when recommendations advance to the commitment and implementation stages that real progress is made.”

City residents and officials are currently evaluating the draft plan, though local environmentalists say the city’s budget proposals don’t line up with an aggressive plan to cut emissions.

The dangers of particulates have been noted by environmentalists attempting to derail fossil fuel projects in Virginia. In late 2021, researcher George Thurston testified to the Air Pollution Control Board on studies that show there’s no level at which ingestion of smaller particles don’t create health risks.

The Lung Association is also advocating for federal action to tighten emissions standards.

Both ozone and particulate emissions are regulated by the EPA’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards, or NAAQS. Those standards are supposed to be updated every five years with the most current science on health impacts, but often aren’t. For instance, the ozone and particulate matter standards were last updated in 2015 - the agency opted to retain those standards in 2020. EPA announced a new review of particulate standards last year.

Stewart said the Clean Air Act, which requires those consistent updates to the NAAQS, has been successful in the long term. The data bear that out - most of the six pollutants tracked by the NAAQS have trended downward consistently. But for years, the science has shown health risks at the current standards.

“It's a matter of simply those authorities to recognize that they need to be improved, because that's where the science has been,” Stewart said.

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.