Air Pollution Improves Across West Virginia, Smog Worsens

Apr 18, 2018

Air quality across West Virginia is improving, with levels of fine particle air pollution some of the best ever measured, but smog levels have increased, according to the American Lung Association’s annual “State of the Air” report released today.

The 2018 report finds that West Virginia metro areas, such as Charleston, Morgantown, Fairmont, Parkersburg and Huntington, beat the national standard when it came to levels of fine particle, or soot, pollution.

Fine particle pollution includes tiny bits of dust released by coal-fired power plants, diesel-burning vehicles, wildfires and wood-burning stoves. This type of pollution can trigger asthma attacks, heart attacks and strokes if the small particles get lodged in the lungs.

It was a different story for ozone pollution. Ozone is a powerful lung irritant that can exacerbate asthma attacks and make it hard for people with lung diseases, like COPD, to breathe.

The report found only Greenbrier County held on to its "A" grade. Several areas saw an increase in unhealthy days for ozone including in Wheeling, Charleston and Huntington.

Kevin Stewart, director of environmental health for the American Lung Association of the Mid-Atlantic, said those trends were consistent across the nation.

Kevin Stewart, director of environmental health for the American Lung Association of the Mid-Atlantic
Credit American Lung Association

"We’ve been hoping over time, we’d be able to continue this trend into very good grades," he said. "And in fact, in last year’s report it was something that was very remarkable in terms of the number of counties that showed very good grades. It’s a little disappointing this year around to find that we’re doing a little bit of backtracking."

The report said a warming climate may help explain the boost in unhealthy ozone pollution levels; 2016 was the second-hottest year on record, and high air temperatures accelerate ozone production.

"We know that ozone is not something that is produced directly out of smokestacks and tailpipes, but rather the precursors to ozone air pollution are emitted and then cook in the atmosphere especially in hot, sunny, still summer days," Stewart said. "Those circumstances are exacerbated when air temperatures are higher than normal and there’s a lot of sunlight."

The report analyzed air quality data collected by federal, state and local air monitoring devices between 2014 and 2016, the most recent data available. Data was collected in 10 West Virginia counties.