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Texas Air Quality: There's Good News And Bad News

A view of Fort Worth on a red ozone alert day.

The American Lung Association released the results of its 17th annual State of the Air report on Wednesday. It’s a report card on the nation’s air quality, ranking metro areas based on ozone and particle pollution. 

When it comes to air quality in the Lone Star State, there’s good news and there’s bad news. 

“We are still seeing a high number of days where the levels are unhealthy, but we are seeing less of those days,” says JoAnna Strother, Southwest regional director for the American Lung Association.

The Dallas-Fort Worth region ranked as the 11th worst metro area in the country for ozone pollution. That’s better than last year’s report, which ranked North Texas seventh worst. Houston, Austin and San Antonio also did better this year. Strother says that fits a general trend for the Southwest region.

“Twenty-one of the 25 cities most polluted by ozone had fewer unhealthy air days on average, and five of those cities reached their lowest averages ever,” Strother says. “And three of those are actually in Texas. They’re Austin, the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and Houston.”

Still, all of the big Texas cities received poor marks for ozone pollution. They scored better on particle pollution refers to microscopic irritants in the air that can lodge deep in the lungs and take a huge toll on people’s health. Air pollution is especially bad for kids and the elderly…as well as folks with lung conditions and heart problems. Making the air cleaner is complicated, though, because the pollution comes from a range of sources. Some of it, Strother says, individuals can control.

“We ask people to, on the no burn days, not to burn fire wood,” she says “Biking to work, carpooling, even refueling your gas tank at night all helps to lessen the burden of unhealthy air.”

Strother says stronger standards for cars, trucks, boats and other vehicles have helped cut down on smog-producing emissions. She says the American Lung Association is backing President Obama’s Clean Power Plan that would limit pollution from coal-fired power plants. But she says there’s one more factor that’s making things worse.

“We do know and we have seen from this report that climate change is really affecting the quality of the air as well,” she says.

Climate change means more hot days to cook up ozone and cranked up electricity use, more drought and wildfires, and changing weather patterns that stir up particle pollution, Strother says. 

One more piece of bad news: only 35 Texas counties monitors air quality so there are a lot of people who might be at risk from air pollution, but can’t even be counted. Nationwide, the number of uncounted could be much larger.

Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.