Sunburns are not the only health risk facing Northern Virginia residents this summer.
Temperatures surpassed 90 degrees over the past weekend, but the heat index, which measures air temperatures in relation to humidity, perhaps more accurately reflected recent conditions.
With the heat index for the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area hovering between 100 and 105 through Monday, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments in partnership with the District Department of Energy and Environment, the Maryland Department of the Environment, and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality issued Code Orange air quality alerts for the region.
Air quality and heat are closely related, according to Dr. Mona Sarfaty, the climate and health program director for George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication.
“Because the heat makes the air quality deteriorate, we have more air pollution during hotter weather,” Sarfaty said. “That means people who have any underlying cardiovascular or respiratory condition can get into more trouble.”
Air quality is calculated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency according to the presence of pollutants like ground-level ozone and particulate matter. It is reported on an index of 0 to 500 with each value corresponding to colors indicating levels of health concern.
An orange alert, for instance, indicates that, while the general population may not be affected, people with respiratory and heart ailments might experience health effects from the air quality and should limit the time they spend outdoors.
Air Quality Index levels over the past weekend were around 112, hardly constituting very unhealthy or hazardous air by EPA standards, but even moderate levels of air pollution can pose dangers, especially after prolonged exposure, a new report on air pollution in the U.S. says.
Written by Frontier Group policy analyst Elizabeth Ridlington and Environment America Research and Policy Center’s Defend Our Environment campaign director Christy Leavitt, “Trouble in the Air: Millions of Americans Breathe Polluted Air” found that more than 6 million people in the D.C. metro area experienced 84 days of at least moderate air pollution, or Code Yellow on the AQI, in 2016.
The Environment Virginia Research and Policy Center, Frontier Group, and U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund reviewed EPA data on air quality from 2016 and broke it down to the metropolitan area or county level for the report, which was released on June 28.
According to the EPA’s Air Quality Index report, Fairfax County alone had 284 good days, 76 days with moderate air pollution, and six days of air that was unhealthy for sensitive groups in 2016 with no unhealthy or very unhealthy days.
The county had 286 good days, 78 moderate days, and one day that was unhealthy for sensitive groups in 2017, and there have been 83 good days and 15 days of moderate pollution so far this year, though annual statistics for 2018 will not be finalized until May 1, 2019.
73 million Americans experienced more than 100 days of degraded air quality in 2016, with the Los Angeles, Calif., and Atlanta, Ga., metropolitan areas among the worst offenders, according to “Trouble in the Air.”
The D.C. region might not seem troubled in comparison, but 84 days is still enough time to present serious potential health risks, Environment Virginia Research and Policy Center field organizer Corinne Leard says.
“Even one day with polluted air is too many,” Leard said during a press conference at Donald Frady Park in Falls Church on June 28. “All Virginians should be able to breathe clean air. To make dirty air days a thing of the past, we need to strengthen air quality protections and reduce global warming pollution.”
Air pollutants like ground-level ozone, particle pollution, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide are regulated by the Clean Air Act, which was first passed in 1970 and amended in 1977 and 1990.
Ground-level ozone, also known as smog, stems from chemical reactions between nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds, gases emitted by products ranging from paints and pesticides to building materials and motor vehicle exhaust, according to the EPA.
Smog causes inflammation in the lungs that Leard compares to a sunburn, leading to respiratory issues like coughing, throat irritation, asthma, and permanent lung damage.
Particulate matter, or particle pollution, either enters the air from construction sites, fires, roads, and other sources or forms in the atmosphere as a result of other pollutants like sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides emitted by power plants, industrial facilities, and automobiles.
When inhaled, particulate matter enters the bloodstream and can trigger both respiratory and cardiovascular problems, from asthma to heart attacks and strokes, according to Leard.
In addition to directing the GMU Center for Climate Change Communication’s climate and health program, Sarfety works as a family physician and has training in public health. She also directs the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health, which raises public awareness about the health implications of climate change.
She says that most people in the U.S. are not aware of how their health is affected by climate change, a long-term warming trend caused by the accumulation of water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere.
“Mostly, they all think that it’ll affect those other people over there, maybe in a foreign country…but the reality is very different,” Sarfety said. “Right now, all over the United States, people are having their health impacted by climate change.”
Along with producing more extreme heatwaves, which can particularly affect children, pregnant women, older people, and people who work outside, climate change contributes to longer and more severe allergies as more allergens like pollen and ragweed enter the air, according to Sarfety.
Hotter weather means more ticks and increased risk of vector-borne diseases like Lyme disease. Virginia reported more than 900 cases of Lyme disease annually from 2013 to 2016, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
“The best opportunity we have to improve health is to clean our air,” Sarfety said.
The D.C. region has actually improved its air quality over the past two decades with the number of Code Orange or worse days dropping from a high of 82 in 1999 to eight in 2017, according to data compiled by staff with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
City of Falls Church Councilmember David Snyder, who is on COG’s air quality committee, attributes that improvement to strong partnerships between state, local, and federal governments as well as nonprofits, advocacy groups, and the private sector.
Since the D.C. area does not have much manufacturing, its pollution comes more from traffic and buildings, so the region looks for sustainability and environmental friendliness in new projects while trying to encourage alternative transportation to gas-powered cars, including biking, walking, and public transit, Snyder says.
However, he worries that the federal government is retreating from its commitment to cleaning the air, a message echoed by Environment Virginia’s report.
“We’re doing what we can with limited funding and competition for those funds, but…if the federal government drops out, it’s going to be extremely difficult to maintain the progress we’ve made so far and impossible to achieve the progress we’re asking for,” Snyder said.
President Donald Trump announced on June 1, 2017 that the U.S. would withdraw from the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, which holds participating countries to carbon emission reductions and increases in their renewable energy use.
Trump also signed an executive order on Mar. 28, 2017 to dismantle regulations on greenhouse gases emitted by power plants imposed by former President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan.
The EPA issued a memorandum on Jan. 25 that reclassified industrial facilities like chemical plants and factories as area sources of air pollution instead of major sources if they dip below the higher threshold for major sources just one time.
EPA Office of Air and Radiation assistant administrator Bill Wehrum said the change was intended to “reduce regulatory burden for industries and states,” but holding facilities that have been major sources of pollutants to lower standards could result in backsliding, according to an article by Vox’s Umair Irfan.
When asked for comment, EPA press officer Enesta Jones told the Fairfax County Times that the agency was reviewing the “Trouble in the Air” report, noting that emissions of air pollutants regulated by the Clean Air Act’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards have dropped 73 percent since 1970.
“Together with our state, local and tribal partners, EPA continues to work to reduce harmful ozone and particle pollution and protect the health of families across the United States,” Jones said. “Under the Clean Air Act, EPA is required to review the standards and the science they are based on every five years to determine whether they continue to protect public health with an adequate margin of safety, as the law requires.”
With “Trouble in the Air,” Environment Virginia called on the federal government to strengthen the Clean Air Act’s pollution standards, not loosen them.
“To protect our health, we must cut smog, particulate pollution, and global warming,” Leard said. “We must accelerate progress, not hit the brakes on effective programs.”