Austin's Air Quality Is Getting Worse, American Lung Association Says

Apr 20, 2020

Austin’s air was more polluted with toxic particles than ever before in the period from 2016 through 2018, according to the American Lung Association. The group warns air quality could continue to worsen as the federal government erodes public health protections.

The findings were announced in the nonprofit's annual air quality report, which ranks U.S. cities by their level of air pollution.  

When it came to ozone pollution, also known as smog, Austin actually improved a bit from previous reports. But it still got an F from the group and was ranked as the 69th most polluted city in the U.S. in that catagory.

Still, Austin was far from the most polluted Texas city in terms of smog. The report ranked Houston 14th in ozone pollution nationwide; the Dallas-Fort Worth area was ranked 21st.

Surprising no one, the report named Los Angeles as the smoggiest city in the country.

Anchorage, Alaska, was found to be the cleanest city ozone-wise. In Texas, the report also singled out Brownsville as the fifth cleanest city for smog, and Corpus Christ was named the 10th.

Austin also fared poorly in ranking by particle pollution. Particle pollution is comprised of small toxic particles that enter the air often from burning fossil fuels or wood.

Levels of particulate pollution in Austin were worse than ever before, the report found. Though, again, Austin still came in ahead of some other Texas cities, including  McAllen-Edingburgh (ranked 12th) Houston (ranked 22nd) and Brownsvilled (ranked 25th).

Charlie Gagen, advocacy director of the American Lung Association in Texas, said Austin also recorded more short-term spikes in particle pollution, leading to more “unhealthy air quality days.”

He said climate change may be adding to the problem.

“Warmer temperatures are leading to more ozone production, more wildfires and generally just making it harder to clean up the air,” Gagen said.

Public health advocates worry air quality will continue to worsen thanks to the rollback of public health protections by the Trump administration.

Most recently, the EPA issued new rules to allow coal- and oil-burning power plants to emit more mercury and other poisonous metals in the air. Among other things, that can cause brain damage in children.

“We’re seeing a real weakening and undermining of a lot of those standards,” Gagen said. “We’re seeing efforts to censure science in the EPA."

The Lung Association said the report looks at air quality from 2016 through 2018 because those are the years for which EPA data is “complete and quality assured for the entire country.”

The report did not look at air quality during the COVID-19 pandemic. A reduction in travel and industrial activity has meant less pollution, but environmentalists stress that is only temporary and won’t help long-term trends.

Got a tip? Email Mose Buchele at mbuchele@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @mosebuchele

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