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OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – According to the American Lung Association’s annual air quality report, Oklahoma City’s air quality is no longer on the list of cleanest cities.

 The 2020 “State of the Air” report found Oklahoma City has earned poorer rankings for the nation’s most widespread air pollutants, ozone and particle pollution, both of which can be deadly.

The Lung Association says Oklahoma City now fails to meet the standard for particle pollution.

The report tracks Americans’ exposure to unhealthful levels of particle pollution and ozone during a three-year period.

Once again, the report found that nearly half of all Americans were exposed to unhealthy air in 2016-2018.

In Oklahoma City, particle pollution placed the health of 650,000 residents at risk, including those who are more vulnerable to the effects of air pollution such as older adults, children and those with a lung disease.

“This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Clean Air Act, which has been responsible for dramatic improvements in air quality. However, Oklahoma City residents are breathing more unhealthy air compared to last year’s report, driven by major spring wildfires in 2018 as well as extreme heat due to climate change, placing our health and lives at risk. Furthermore, with nearly half of Americans breathing unhealthy air, our ‘State of the Air’ report shows that nationally, because of climate change, the nation is heading in the wrong direction when it comes to protecting public health.”

Each year, the “State of the Air” provides a report card on the two most widespread outdoor air pollutants, ozone pollution, also known as smog, and particle pollution, also called soot.

The report analyzes particle pollution in two ways: through average annual particle pollution levels and short-term spikes in particle pollution.

Both ozone and particle pollution are dangerous to public health and can increase the risk of premature death and other serious health effects such as asthma attacks, cardiovascular damage, and developmental and reproductive harm. Particle pollution can also cause lung cancer, and new research links air pollution to the development of serious diseases, such as asthma and dementia.

Ozone Pollution in Oklahoma City

Compared to the 2019 report, Oklahoma City experienced more unhealthy days of high ozone in this year’s report.

“Ozone pollution can harm even healthy people, but is particularly dangerous for children, older adults and people with lung diseases like COPD or asthma,” said Charlie Gagen, Advocacy Director of the American Lung Association in Oklahoma. “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. Ozone can even shorten people’s lives.”

This report documents that warmer temperatures brought by climate change are making ozone more likely to form and harder to clean up. Significantly more people suffered unhealthy ozone pollution in the 2020 report than in the last three “State of the Air” reports.

Particle Pollution in Oklahoma City

“State of the Air” 2020 found that year-round particle pollution levels in Oklahoma City were significantly higher than in last year’s report.

“Particle pollution can lodge deep in the lungs and can even enter the bloodstream. It can trigger asthma attacks, heart attacks and strokes and cause lung cancer,” said Gagen. Particle pollution comes from coal-fired power plants, diesel emissions, wildfires and wood-burning devices.

“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. 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,” said Gagen.

“State of the Air” 2020 also tracked short-term spikes in particle pollution, which can be extremely dangerous and even lethal. The report found that Oklahoma City had more days when short-term particle pollution reached unhealthy levels, and is no longer on the cleanest city list.

Many of these spikes in Oklahoma City were directly linked spring wildfires that pushed particles higher, and extreme heat helped to push ozone higher in the summer. Drought, wildfire and extreme heat in 2018 were factors as every county either got worse or stayed the same in their ozone and particle pollution counts.

This year’s report covers 2016, 2017 and 2018, the years with the most recent quality-assured data available collected by states, cities, counties, tribes and federal agencies.

The Lung Association says it should be noted that those three years were among the five hottest recorded in global history. Rising temperatures lead to increased levels of ozone pollution. Changing climate patterns also fuel wildfires and their dangerous smoke, which increase particle pollution.

Ozone and particle pollution threaten everyone, especially children, older adults and people living with a lung disease.

Although this report does not cover data from 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the impact of air pollution on lung health is of heightened concern, said the Lung Association.  

“We all have the right to breathe clean, healthy air. The 50th anniversary of the Clean Air Act serves as a critical reminder that Americans breathe healthier air today because of this landmark law,” said Gagen. “At the same time, this year’s report shows that we must stand up for clean air – especially to safeguard our most vulnerable community members. Our leaders, both here in Oklahoma and at the federal level, must take immediate, significant action to ward off climate change and other threats to the quality of the air we all breathe.”