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Interactive Map: A Guide to New Jersey’s Bad Air Days

State suffers from unhealthy levels of ozone, American Lung Association reports, but air quality overall is slowly improving

This week, the entire state of New Jersey faced air quality alerts as the hot, stagnant weather raised the levels of ozone and particulate matter to amounts considered dangerous to breathe, particularly for the very young, the very old, and those with lung conditions.

New Jerseyans are no strangers to unhealthy air quality; the American Lung Association's (ALA) “State of the Air 2016” report gave most counties in the state failing grades for ozone, or smog. (The report measured data for the years 2012-2014). The entire state is also at some level of non-attainment for the federal Environmental Protection Agency's ozone standards.

There was some good news in the report: Every county with ozone monitors has seen a reduction in the number of bad air days since 1996, and all those with monitors for particulates -- chemicals and dusts -- received a passing grade on that measure, as well as a reduction in the number of bad days since 2001.

“The 2016 ‘State of the Air’ report finds unhealthful levels of ozone throughout New Jersey, putting our citizens at risk for premature death and other serious health effects, such as asthma attacks and cardiovascular harm,” said Deborah Brown, president and CEO of the American Lung Association of the Mid-Atlantic. “Across the nation, the report found continued improvement in air quality, but more than half of the people in the United States live in counties that have unhealthful levels of either ozone or particle pollution.”

“Even though we made progress over the years we still have a long way to go because New Jersey still has some of the worst air in the nation,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. "New Jersey is virtually the only state in the union where at least a portion of every county is in non-attainment (with federal standards)."

Of the 15 counties for which air monitoring data was available, 13 got a failing grade from the ALA. Warren County received a C, with just three bad ozone days affecting vulnerable populations, and Passaic got a D, with seven days bad for at-risk populations and one day considered hazardous for all people. New Jersey had no days considered very unhealthy in 2012-14.

Six counties -- Burlington, Cape May, Salem, Somerset, Sussex and Union -- have no monitoring stations. Specific data on poor ozone days was therefore not available for them; their results would likely be similar to those in neighboring counties.

In fact, the entire state falls into one of two major metropolitan areas that are among the worst 25 for either ozone or particulate matter pollution, according to the American Lung Association in New Jersey. The New York-Newark metro area, which includes North Jersey, ranked 14th worst in the nation for ground level ozone. While individual counties scored well for particulate pollution, the Philadelphia-Reading-Camden metro area, which includes South Jersey, ranked 12th worst in the nation for annual average levels of fine particle pollution.

Camden County ranked worst in the state for ozone, registering a weighted average of 13.2 bad days a year. It tied with Mercer for the greatest number of unhealthy days -- 29 -- for at-risk populations and led the state for the greatest number of unhealthy days for all people, with seven days a year recorded.

Ozone is a powerful lung irritant formed in the atmosphere in sunlight, usually on hot days without much wind, as a result of the chemical reaction of certain air pollutants; auto emissions are a large portion of it. Despite improvements in absolute ozone levels in New Jersey, the 2016 ALA report found more days of high ozone than did the 2015 report — which measured 2011-2013 data, because the EPA has toughened the ozone standard.

“Ozone smog is harmful for public health and especially for children, older adults and those with asthma and other lung diseases,” said Kevin Stewart, director of Environmental Health at the American Lung Association of the Mid-Atlantic. “When vulnerable adults or children with asthma breathe ozone-polluted air, too often they end up in the doctor’s office, the hospital or the emergency room.”

So far this year, one or more monitoring sites in New Jersey recorded harmful ozone levels on 12 days, including Wednesday this week; unhealthy air also was projected for Thursday and Friday. Rutgers University's monitor in New Brunswick has logged the most days -- eight -- exceeding the new federal standard of .07 parts per million.

Particulate pollution includes soot or tiny particles that come from coal-fired power plants, diesel engines, vehicles, industries, wildfires, open burning and wood-burning devices.

"These particles are so small that they can lodge deep in the lungs and trigger asthma attacks, heart attacks and strokes, and can even lead to death,” said Stewart. “Year-round particle pollution levels have dropped thanks to the cleanup of coal-fired power plants and the retirement of old, dirty diesel engines.”

The 2016 report found that almost all year-round particle pollution levels in New Jersey were slightly lower than in the 2015 report. Nine of the 13 counties monitored got an A from the ALA because they had no days in which they failed the federal standard for particulates in 2012-14. Camden, Hudson and Essex counties had one or two failing days, while Union County had five bad days. Data was not available for Burlington, Cape May, Cumberland, Hunterdon, Monmouth, Salem, Somerset and Sussex counties.

"We are very proud of the fact that we finally met the particulates standard," said Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, noting the state began meeting that federal standard in 2014.

Tittel placed the blame for New Jersey's air quality — particularly as reflected in unhealthy ozone days — on the Christie administration, saying officials have kept coal power plants open and "blocked attempts to promote electric vehicles and charging stations" in the state.

“The biggest threat today is from particulates from coal plants that make ground level ozone worse, as well as other sources like automobiles," he said. "We need to have cleaner-burning vehicles and higher fuel efficiency. More importantly is moving towards electric plug-ins and other clean vehicles to reduce pollution from cars that impacts us the most."

Hajna disputed those statements. He said New Jersey has adopted the tough California emissions’ requirements for cars and has spent money or provided grants for retrofitting diesel vehicles, off-road construction equipment and electric vehicle charging stations at businesses.

"The fact of the matter is it's about cars, for the most part, and the pollution that blows in from the west," Hajna said of ozone levels. "That's not to say we are not creating our own share, but we require the toughest emissions’ standards for cars sold in the state. Given time, as more and more cars sold in New Jersey meet that standard, that will help."

Hajna also said only a handful of coal-fired plants remain and they have emissions’ controls so the plants can meet stringent state standards; he also noted the state is the fourth largest solar energy producer in the nation.

Tittel said coal-fired power plants are one of the largest sources of pollution in the country emitting thousands of pounds of toxic mercury and other pollutants every year. The state needs to close those that remain and "switch to clean, renewable energy," he said.

“If we can do more to save lives — we should, and we can,” Brown said. “The Lung Association in New Jersey calls on New Jersey to adopt a strong Clean Power Plan to reduce harmful emissions from power plants that worsen climate change and immediately harm health.”

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