Correction: This story has been updated to correct the areas in Texas with the worst air pollution in 2020.
The Austin area ranked as the third-worst Texas metro area for air pollution with 103 days of unsafe pollution levels last year, according to a report issued Tuesday by the Environment Texas Research and Policy Center, Frontier Group and TexPIRG Education Fund.
The report says the Austin area had 22 days of elevated ozone levels and 84 days of elevated small particulate matter last year. Nearly 1 in 3 days, Austinites experienced unsafe levels of air pollution in 2020.
Exposure to these pollutants has been linked to several health issues, such as an increased risk for cancers and premature death.
“Even very low levels of air pollution can still cause respiratory harm, harm to the cardiovascular system (and) heart attacks,” Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas, told the American-Statesman.
The Brownsville area recorded 129 days of elevated pollution, the most in Texas, followed by the El Paso area, with 126 days.
While 2020 briefly saw cleaner air quality as the pandemic reduced the need for transportation, which contributes to nearly half of air pollution in Texas, summer wildfires and Austin construction increased air pollution later in the year.
However, Austin air quality has improved since the early 2010s, when the city was dangerously close to exceeding federal limits on ozone pollution, Metzger said. But Austin is still close to exceeding the limits, he said.
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Additionally, Metzger said one of Austin’s five air pollution monitors was not functioning for most of 2020, indicating an undercount of days with unsafe pollution levels.
“The last several years, we’ve just been really close to the line of failing the EPA standards, which as we talked about before, are pretty weak,” Metzger said. “And (Austin is) certainly nowhere close to what we need to do to be protective of human health.”
Austin also sees pollution from coal-fired power plants in East Texas and chemical refineries on the Gulf Coast.
“A lot of air pollution blows into Austin, so we’re kind of hit from all angles from different sources,” Metzger said. “Everything from wildfires to the Sahara dust to agricultural burning in Mexico.”
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Since air pollution can travel easily across states and even countries, Metzger said it is more important for federal and state governments to introduce and enforce environmental guidelines. City leaders can also do their part, he said.
Metzger said the potential expansion of Interstate 35 could worsen air pollution levels through construction and the potential to add more gasoline-powered cars to Austin roads. Metzger said Austin officials are looking at alternate options to the expansion that will be less harmful to the environment.
The report recommended a swift transition to electric vehicles and tighter air pollution standards in line with scientifically recommended levels.