More than 40% of Americans — 135 million people — live in areas with unhealthy levels of pollution, according to the American Lung Association’s annual assessment of air quality across the nation.
New Jersey is no outlier. Eight of its 21 counties were slapped with “F’’ grades for the high number of days when they violated the national air quality standard for ground-level ozone, a pollutant that forms on hot summer days that can cause respiratory problems and other ailments for young children, the elderly, and those with asthma.
The eight counties are Bergen, Camden, Gloucester, Hudson, Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex, and Ocean.
There were some positive trends in the report, but those trends were offset by other factors, like climate change that led to hotter temperatures with more days when a mixture of pollutants cooked in the sun to cause more unhealthy levels of smog.
Still, 14 million people across the country were breathing healthier air over the three years of data compiled by the organization, 2017 through 2019, the most recent years for which the information was publicly available. In New Jersey, the number of counties given a failing grade for failing to deal with ozone violations dropped to eight, down by three from the last report.
More sobering, the report identified that people of color and those living in so-called environmental justice communities already burdened with pollution, continue to be most affected by unhealthy air. This included particulate pollution, a contaminant formed by combustion, that is believed to cause up to 50,000 premature deaths annually.
“People of color are more than three times more likely to be breathing polluted air than white people,’’ the report said. Nearly 14 million people, including 9.7 million Hispanics, live in counties where all the pollutant levels identified in the report earned a failing grade for unhealthy levels for the public.
Both the Murphy administration and President Biden have pledged to address the issue of unfair pollution levels in communities of color and high poverty. In New Jersey, the state has adopted what it touts as the strongest environmental justice law in the nation, aiming to reduce pollution in those communities.
Earlier this week, the state Department of Environmental Protection proposed joining California’s Advanced Clean Trucks program, an initiative aimed at accelerating the transition to zero-emission vehicles for medium- and heavy-duty trucks in New Jersey. Those trucks contribute a significant amount of pollution from particulates in many urban areas.
The Newark/New York/Connecticut metropolitan area was ranked as the 14th most polluted urban area for ozone pollution and as the 20th most polluted for year-round particulate pollution, according to the report.
New Jersey has never met the national health quality standard for ground-level ozone, and only achieved the standard for particulate pollution a few years ago. The American Lung Association report recommends both standards need to be strengthened to reduce levels of both pollutants.
‘’From a trend perspective, there are too many people in New Jersey who are being exposed to too much air pollution,’’ said Michael Seilback, director of advocacy for the American Lung Association. “What we see with the climate changing, there is more opportunity [for more pollution] to be created.’’