Leave it to the American Lung Association to tell us how crappy our air is. Its 2012 State of the Air report, released today, puts the Philly metro area in the top 10 worst regions for air pollution. (To be fair, we’re tied for the honor with St. Louis in the year-round particle pollution category, but still. We rank 16th overall for high ozone days.)
The report looks at ozone pollution (i.e. smog) as well as particle pollution—a fancy term for microscopic bits of solids and aerosols floating around in the air, like the fumes you see coming out of a car’s exhaust—and assigns “grades” to determine the most and least polluted cities in America. For the purposes of the report, our metro area was generously defined to include counties in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland.
Taken as a group, we failed miserably in terms of ozone and particle pollution. Here in Philadelphia County, the Air Quality Index, a color-coded scale that the EPA helped develop to show days when pollution is higher, shows that we have an average of 34 “orange” high-ozone days a year—meaning Philadelphians endure over a month’s worth of days during which the air is decidedly unhealthy to breathe. Even scarier, we average one “red” ozone day a year, when ozone levels are considered unhealthy for the entire population (!!).
The American Lung Association determines the grades by assigning increasing weights to days during which air pollution reaches higher levels, adding them all together, and calculating a weighted average.
While the bottom line is that none of us should be breathing in this smoggy, particle-filled air, some populations are more sensitive—and face a greater risk—than others. For sufferers of asthma, chronic bronchitis and emphysema, the American Lung Association says that air pollution can not only cause further complications, but in some cases it could shave months—even years—off their lives. Out of the 1,526,006 people living in Philadelphia, 32,761 have pediatric asthma, 117,594 have adult asthma, 49,215 have chronic bronchitis and 20,494 have emphysema.
Air pollution poses a risk to children under 18, too, because their lungs are still developing; it can cause bronchitis or infection and puts them at a greater risk for lung disease later in life. We’ve got 343,837 people under 18 living here.
Adults 65 and over are another at-risk group. Studies show that breathing in ozone and particle pollution puts older adults at a higher risk of respiratory and cardiovascular problems. This is bad news for the 185,309 people over 65 living in Philadelphia County. Income also plays a role: The ALA says those in lower income brackets face greater issues with air pollution because they often live closer to sources of pollution and are sometimes more likely to have illnesses that make them more sensitive to polluted air. Over 390,560 people in Philly fall into that category.
You don’t have to do the math to see that a large percentage of our population is at risk just by living, working and, well, breathing in this city. And even if you’re not part of one of those hypersensitive populations, breathing grade-F air can’t be any good for your health.