A report issued by the American Lung Association showed improvement in Charleston’s rankings for some of the most harmful types of air pollution: particulate matter and ozone.
But the pollution levels seen in Charleston can still harm the health of all residents, particularly children, older adults, pregnant women and those living with chronic diseases, said Ashley Lyerly, the state association’s advocacy director.
Particulate matter is a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets found in the air, such as dust, soot and smoke. It can be smaller than even a strand of human hair.
Construction and demolition, mining operations, agriculture and factories can create particle pollution.
Ozone is a gas composed of three atoms of oxygen. Depending on where it is found in the atmosphere, it can be good or bad for the health and environment, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says. Ozone is harmful at the ground level and is the main ingredient in smog.
The American Lung Association’s air quality data came from the EPA’s Air Quality System. The report looked at data from 2018 to 2020 recorded at monitoring sites across the country.
According to the report, Charleston ranked as the 138th-most-polluted city, in terms of negative ozone out of 226 tested. That is better than the 119th ranking reported last year, the association said in a news release.
The area ranked 99th worst for short-term particle pollution out of 221 tested areas. Year-round particle pollution levels were also lower than those recorded in last year’s report, the association said.
One reason behind the reductions is that many of the federal standards now in place, such as the Clean Air Act, have put restrictions on industry and other groups to help reduce air pollution.
Despite the rankings, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control said the state is meeting all National Ambient Air Quality Standards for all six criteria pollutants, including ozone and particulate matter.
The American Lung Association is advocating for stronger standards. Lyerly said strategies need to be implemented on the individual and regional level “to change our behavior so that we continue to see improvements in our air quality.”
Becoming a clear air advocate is key, she said, with methods including being aware of the air quality in your particular area or engaging in advocacy efforts at regional, state and national levels.
People can also work individually to reduce their pollution. For example, try to refrain from mowing the lawn during heat in the afternoon so that the mower isn’t emitting a gas that will interact with the sun and create further ozone, Lyerly said.
Walking, biking and carpooling are other key ways to individually have an impact on air pollution.
The association encourages local governments to adopt a climate plan, purchase zero-emission fleet vehicles and establish purchasing goals for renewable, non-combustion electricity. Municipalities in the Lowcountry have already taken some of these steps.
Lung health, heart attacks, strokes and other cardiovascular issues have been shown to correlate with air pollution, said Dr. Charlie Strange, a professor of pulmonary and critical care at the Medical University of South Carolina.
“Remember that heart attacks are the No. 1 killer of men and women in America, so clear air is important,” Strange said.
People can track the current air quality for their area on airnow.gov. Air quality is measured on the site by a range of colors, with green being good and maroon considered hazardous.
Strange said mornings in Charleston always start in the green zone. But later in the day, if the air is not moving, people have their air conditioners on and cars begin to hit the roadways, ozone starts to peak and the air quality could reach the yellow zone, which is considered moderate.
This does create a risk and could affect respiratory health for people who have “twitchy airways” with asthma and other diseases, Strange said.
Even at extreme levels, there are plenty of people not affected by high ozone and particle pollution, Strange said.
People who are affected by air pollution should monitor their medicines on poor-quality days and spend more time indoors.
“While we have seen improvements over the years of this report, we still are seeing around 137 million people still living in unhealthy levels of ozone or particle pollution,” Lyerly said.
She said the nation has a ways to go so that everyone is living in a healthy environment.