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Richmond receives mixed marks for air quality

People walk across a bridge that's suspended from another
Crixell Matthews
VPM News file
People walk across the bridge to Richmond's Belle Isle.

The number of high-particulate-matter days ticked up this year.

The Greater Richmond region’s air quality is mixed, according to the 2023 State of the Air report released by the American Lung Association.

Although the region matched last year’s best-ever record in ozone smog levels, it saw an increase in high-particulate-matter days, losing its status as one of the cleanest regions nationwide for that pollutant.

Harmful pollutants

Kevin Stewart, director of environmental health for the ALA, said ozone and particulate matter are “the two major air pollutants that are most widespread and are associated with the greatest [health] risks across the country.”

The report measures the number of high-ozone and high-particulate days based on the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS), using data from 2019–2021. It also examined year-round particle pollution in those years.

Ozone smog is formed when chemicals found in the exhaust of motor vehicles, factories and other fossil-fuel-burning sources are exposed to sunlight. The resulting gas irritates people’s lungs and air ways, even trapping air in the alveoli, or air sacs.

The Environmental Protection Agency says most particulates form as a result of emissions from factories, automobiles, chemical plants and more, but they can come from many sources. Construction sites and dusty, unpaved roads are also common sources.

Particulate matter is often measured as PM10 and PM2.5 — smaller than 10 and 2.5 microns in diameter, respectively. Dr. Neelu Tummala is an ear, nose and throat surgeon at George Washington University Hospital and a member of Virginia Clinicians for Climate Action’s steering committee. She said particles that small can lodge deep into the lung’s air sacs, exacerbating respiratory conditions like asthma.

“The respiratory impacts are highly concerning, but it's more than that,” Tummala said. “There's also a huge stress and strain that's put on the cardiovascular system.”

Some particulates are small enough to cross into the bloodstream, increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke.

Stewart said the ALA is also interested in ozone and particulate pollution because vulnerable populations — people with heart or lung conditions, children, seniors, pregnant people, people of color — tend to be the most likely to be exposed to the pollutants.

“They make up about half the population, at least,” he said.

Helpful policies

Richmond City had the worst year-round levels of particulate matter pollution in the Greater Richmond region, but it still complied with NAAQS — the same standards ALA uses to guide its research.

According to the report, the region has greatly improved over time in all metrics due to the Clean Air Act and the EPA’s regulatory standards for hazardous pollutants.

In 2000, Greater Richmond averaged 42.5 high-ozone days and 4.7 high-particle days yearly. Now, the area averages one of each every three years. It has also met the yearly particle pollution standard each year since 2007–2009 report.

But Stewart said if the NAAQS were made to be stricter, as the ALA is calling for, many localities would likely fall out of compliance. The EPA has not adjusted the standards for PM2.5 in over a decade but has proposed doing just that.

Tummala said as a physician, she wants the standards to be as strict as possible. But she knows it’s not that simple.

“What they're trying to do is use the best scientific evidence to say, ‘OK, what is the number that's going to give us optimal improvement in health, but then also potentially be the most feasible politically and economically?’” Tummala said.

Chesterfield County had the Richmond region’s most high-ozone days in the three-year span: one. That seems small, but Stewart said the ALA’s stance is that every bad day counts.

“We recognize that one air quality day that's bad is one that possibly one too many for somebody,” Stewart said.

Some Northern Virginia counties recorded more high-ozone days: Fairfax had 5, Loudoun had 3 and Arlington had 4.

The Roanoke region also struggled in the three-year span, falling out of the cleanest cities list. Hampton Roads experienced slightly more particulate pollution year-round compared to last year’s report, but it remained one of the cleanest regions in the country in terms of high-ozone and high-particulate days.

The data itself has limitations: The EPA compiles it from local sources, but not all localities track ozone and particulate matter. Richmond, for example, does not track high-ozone days.

Plus, the regional view is not granular. One of the report’s recommendations is local climate planning and commitments, which often have to be supported by local data. Work is being done by researchers in Richmond and cities across the country to take a closer look at where air quality and other environmental factors are most impactful within cities and counties.

According to researchers, like Jenny Roe at the University of Virginia and Jeremy Hoffman at the Science Museum of Virginia, that data can be used to guide city plans. In Richmond, that’s already the case.

City Council and Mayor Levar Stoney adopted the first plan to come out of the RVAGreen 2050 planning process this March. The Climate Equity Action Plan 2030 acknowledges that historically marginalized communities — namely, those affected by racist housing and investment policies in the Southside, Northside and East End — are more polluted and home to people more likely to be at-risk of health complications due to pollution.

The plan commits the city to reducing emissions 45% by 2030 to protect the environment, human health and foster economic prosperity in all of the city’s neighborhoods. Initiatives must still be funded by City Council to achieve that goal.

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