There were seven days between 2014 and 2016 where ozone levels in Hampshire County reached an unhealthy level for sensitive groups — young kids, elderly people and those with asthma or other lung diseases. When inhaled, ozone pollution can irritate the lungs and potentially damage them.
The poor grade is not an anomaly — Hampshire County has consistently gotten low marks for its number of high ozone pollution days from the American Lung Association’s annual “State of the Air” report. This year, we earned a D, after getting a C in 2017 and an F in 2016. In the most recent report, Hampshire County got one of the lowest grades of all 14 counties in the state — only Hampden and Bristol counties had more high ozone level days.
“You wouldn’t expect in a relatively rural county without a giant population. And we don’t have a large industry base — there aren’t any giant power plants here or huge factories — so you’d expect us to have a clean environment,” said Richard Peltier, a University of Massachusetts Amherst associate professor of environmental health sciences.
But that’s not true, at least relative to other parts of the state, Peltier said.
The Valley actually has worse air quality compared to Boston, according to Daniel Jacob, Harvard University Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry and Environmental Engineering.
There are a few drivers of this. First, the air we get in the Valley is impacted by pollution from areas downwind from us — places like New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia and even Washington, D.C.
“It would be a safe assumption that at least half of the ozone that we see here would come from elsewhere,” Peltier said. “Air pollution has no boundary,” he added.
Of course, we still create pollution here, too. “Certainly we’re no angels,” Peltier said.
Nothing emits ozone directly, it’s a pollutant created from a mixture of other emissions. Throw together some nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compounds, which are created from burning fossil fuels among other sources, and cook it in the sunlight, and you’ve got a recipe for ozone. Summer is the peak time for high ozone days. This ozone-formation process can occur while emissions float to western Massachusetts.
On top of that, some call New England the “tailpipe of America” because air pollution from places including Ohio, Indiana and Illinois gets carried here by the wind on its last stop before reaching the Atlantic Ocean, Jacob explained.
It ends up on the East Coast because at our latitude wind generally blows from west to east, according to Jacob. “You hardly see it blowing from the east,” he said. Jacob has researched the phenomenon, participating in projects with NASA using airplanes to track how pollution moves.
Determining whether more pollution is coming from the industrial Midwest or cities south of the Valley like New York is a longstanding debate though, Jacob said.
Another factor is that the geography of the Valley itself can actually worsen the air quality, Peltier explained. Polluted air can get trapped lower to the ground and doesn’t always move over the hills and out of the region. “It does divert pollution to where the people live,” he said. “It tends to keep it toward the center of that valley.”
Although Hampshire County most recently got a D for high ozone level days, historically we’re not doing so bad. When you look at the greater trend in the county and country, the number of high ozone days have been slashed over the past few decades thanks to stricter regulations, experts said.
In 1996, there were roughly nine times more high ozone level days in Hampshire County than in the most recent American Lung Association report. Since then, the number of days have dropped steadily in Hampshire county and overall nationally.
Despite the marked improvements, Hampshire County still got failing marks for nearly two decades. The first year that the county received a passing grade was 2015. Peltier explained this is partially because the standards haven’t always been the same. In the past 10 years, the ozone standards have been getting stricter.
“One of the reasons why we continue to have relatively low grades is because the standard for ozone has become lower; in other words the goal post has been moving,” Peltier said.
Lance Boucher, who works on public policy in the eastern U.S. for the American Lung Association, pointed to clean car standards and tighter regulations on power plant emissions as some reasons for the improvements.
Rollbacks of environmental protections under the Trump Administration could undo some of that progress, though. For example, the EPA has proposed a weakening of clean car standards, rules put into place in 2012 to increase fuel efficiency. The EPA is also working to replace the Clean Power Plan, which aims to curb emissions from coal-fired power plants by a third by 2030, with a new, weaker rule.
“The problem is that we’re ignoring the science, and doing so puts us in peril,” Peltier said of the rollbacks.
“These are rollbacks that threaten air quality Hampshire County, Massachusetts, and across the country,” Boucher said. “We need to fight back and stop this systematic unraveling.
Greta Jochem can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.