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New Report Shows Best Ever Air Quality In North Texas

Donna McWilliam
Associated Press
A sign posting an alert for bad air quality is shown along Interstate Highway 635 in Dallas.

A new study shows North Texans are breathing in less unhealthy air.

The American Lung Association's “State of the Air” report found that Dallas-Fort Worth achieved its best ever ranking for air quality - 21st in the country for ozone pollution and 40th for year-round particle pollution. 

The annual report tracked people's exposure to unhealthy levels of ozone and particle pollution from 2016 to 2018.

Ozone levels in the area were the lowest ever recorded. Often called smog, ozone develops in the atmosphere when gas from things like motor vehicles, chemical plants or factories comes into contact with sunlight. Particle pollution is a mixture of tiny liquid and solid particles.

Charlie Gagen is the advocacy director for the American Lung Association. He said it's encouraging to see the Dallas-Fort Worth area's ozone levels dropping, but the area still has room to improve.

“Ozone pollution can harm even healthy people, but is particularly dangerous for children, older adults and people with lung diseases like COPD or asthma,” Gagen said. “Breathing ozone-polluted air can trigger asthma attacks in both adults and children with asthma, which can land them in the doctor’s office or the emergency room.” 

Levels of particle pollution stayed relatively the same since the last report was issued. However, the region saw more days when short-term spikes in particle pollution reached unhealthy levels. 

“Year-round particle pollution levels had dropped in recent years thanks to the cleanup of coal-fired power plants and the retirement of old, dirty diesel engines," he said. "However, the increase we’ve seen nationally in particle pollution in this year’s report is a troubling reminder that we must increase our efforts to reduce this dangerous pollution."

Climate change is a big driver of both ozone and particle pollution. Gagen said warmer temperatures cause more ozone to form and makes it harder to remove from the air. Climate change also creates weather patterns that cause particle pollution levels to jump.

The coronavirus pandemic has caused much of the country to close, but Gagen noted an upside to the situation: the air is significantly cleaner — for now.

"I think it's important to remember that this is a temporary pause in air pollution, right?" he said. "That's good for health, but we need to keep in mind that at some point there will be a big spike in pollution, again, and that's a long-term problem."

Gagen said the American Lung Association is calling on the federal government to set stronger limits on ozone and particle pollutants, in addition to reconsidering weakening mercury and air toxic standards. 

Rebekah Morr is KERA's All Things Considered newscaster and producer. She came to KERA from NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C., where she worked as a news assistant at Weekend All Things Considered.