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Harrisburg-York-Lebanon metro area earns best-ever results in latest American Lung Association air pollution report card

The annual air quality “report card” tracks and grades Americans’ exposure to unhealthful levels of particle pollution and ozone over a 3-year period.
Harrisburg Pennsylvania Capitol City

HARRISBURG, Pa. — The six-county Harrisburg-York-Lebanon metro area improved to its best-ever rating for year-round levels of fine particle pollution and met the national air quality standard, according to the latest "State of the Air" report issued by the American Lung Association this week.

Days with high levels of ozone smog or particle pollution were rare, but remained a threat, the ALA said. 

The full report, which is based on three years of data from 2017-19, is available here.

Of the six counties that make up the area, Cumberland County scored the lowest grade for daily measure of particle pollution, with a "C." 

Adams and Lebanon counties earned B grades for ozone smog, reaching the area's best-ever result in that category.

“The grades show room for improvement and more must be done to protect the health of people at risk,” said American Lung Association Director of Environmental Health Kevin Stewart. “There are still days when the air pollution levels are high enough to harm health and trigger asthma attacks, heart attacks and stroke, placing children, older adults, and people living with chronic lung and heart disease at particular risk.

"Ozone and particle pollution are the nation’s most harmful and widespread air pollutants, and both can be deadly. In addition, more exposure to particle pollution is linked to worse health outcomes from COVID-19, including more deaths.

“The American Lung Association’s 2021 ‘State of the Air’ report shows that despite some nationwide progress on cleaning up air pollution, more than 40% of Americans live with unhealthy ozone or particle pollution. People of color are significantly more likely to breathe polluted air than white people.

"As the nation works to address climate change and continue reducing air pollution, we must prioritize the health of disproportionately burdened communities.”

Compared to the 2020 report, the Harrisburg metro area experienced fewer unhealthy days of high ozone, achieving a new best-ever performance.

Adams and Lebanon Counties each recorded a weighted average of 0.7 days (a B grade) high in ozone, a clear improvement over their shared level of 2.3 days (a D) in last year’s report—which had been the area’s first passing grade for its worst county average.

The area’s ranking improved to 119th most polluted in the country from 81st worst in last year’s report.

“Ozone pollution can harm even healthy people, but is particularly dangerous for children, older adults and people with lung diseases such as COPD or asthma,” said Stewart. “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.”  

“State of the Air” 2021 found that year-round particle pollution levels in the Harrisburg metro area improved as it did in the previous report, reaching its best ever average annual level and meeting the standard for this pollutant.

York County remained the county with the highest annual average in the metro area, improving on its previous best-ever average in last year’s report at levels easily meeting the national air quality standard. 

The area’s ranking improved to 56th most polluted in the country from 41st worst in last year’s report.

The report also tracked short-term spikes in particle pollution, which can be extremely dangerous and even lethal. The worst performance for this pollutant measure in the metro area was Cumberland County’s weighted average of 2.0 days (a C grade) in this year’s report covering 2017-2019.  

That displaced Dauphin and Lebanon Counties’ 1.0 day (still a C) recorded in the previous year’s report, and which had been the metro area’s best ever mark. 

The area’s ranking wed to worsened to 42nd most polluted in the country from 56th worst in last year’s report.

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

The year’s report found that nationwide, more than four in 10 people (135 million) lived with polluted air, placing their health and lives at risk. 

In the Harrisburg metro area, air pollution placed the health of about 1.3 million residents at risk, including those who are more vulnerable to the effects of air pollution, such as older adults, children and people with a lung disease.

The report also shows that people of color were 61% more likely to live in a county with unhealthy air than white people, and three times more likely to live in a county that failed all three air quality grades. 

The report also finds that climate change made air quality worse and harder to clean up.

The Lung Association’s annual air quality “report card” tracks and grades Americans’ exposure to unhealthful levels of particle pollution (also known as soot) and ozone (smog) over a three-year period—this year’s report covers 2017-2019. 

The report analyzes particle pollution in two ways: average annual levels and short-term spikes. Both ozone and particle pollution can cause premature death and other serious health effects such as asthma attacks and cardiovascular damage, and are linked to developmental and reproductive harm. Particle pollution can also cause lung cancer.

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