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Providence receives “F” on ozone pollution in American Lung Association report

High ozone levels cause health complications, have disportionate effects on marginalized groups

The American Lung Association’s annual State of the Air report for Providence gave the city an F for ozone pollution, but found that particle pollution is at an acceptable level.

The State of the Air report, which is based on data from 2017 to 2019, found that the city had a weighted average of four high ozone days, more than the passing grade of 3.2. Ozone levels have been declining in Providence over the past two decades, but still remain above acceptable levels.

The failing grade means residents are at a higher risk for certain diseases, according to Daniel Fitzgerald, the Rhode Island senior manager of advocacy for the ALA. “Ozone is currently one of the least well-controlled pollutants here in the U.S., but it’s also one of the most dangerous,” he said. “The air our families are breathing could actually lead to a shortened life or cause lung cancer or other harmful effects.”

Elizabeth Goldberg, associate professor of emergency medicine and of health services, policy and practice, also emphasized the health risks of ozone pollution. “Ozone is responsible for cardiovascular disease, irritation of the eyes, nose and throat and breathing problems,” she said.

“We have a lot of folks in Providence that have asthma, (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) or chronic lung conditions, and those people are affected when ozone is high,” she explained. “As an emergency physician, I then see them in the hospital … because our air is polluted.”

As of 2019, Rhode Island had the ninth highest asthma rates in the country. Nearly 11 percent of the state population suffered from the condition, compared with 8.4 percent nationally.

Both Goldberg and Fitzgerald emphasized that poor air quality disproportionately affects marginalized groups within the city. Neighborhoods in which people of color and working-class people live, they said, tend to have poorer air quality, thus increasing their risk of developing health complications.

“The I-95 corridor comes right through Providence, and a lot of our communities of color” live near the interstate, Fitzgerald said.

Additionally, according to Golberg, “people of color … are more likely to attend schools near highways.”

“You have this exposure during school days, and then they also have to go home to apartments or residences near sources of major pollution because it’s cheaper to live in a place that’s near a highway or industry,” Goldberg said. “Clinically, I see a lot more people that are low-income and people of color that come in with these issues.”

Such inequities affect educational outcomes as well, Goldberg added. For instance, she explained that high levels of air pollution and proximity to highways are linked to lower test scores and attendance rates among students. As a Providence Public School District school board member, she said that she has been working with the school district to improve air quality.

Senior Air Quality Specialist at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management Darren Austin emphasized that the ozone problem is not limited to the Ocean State. “We’re uniquely positioned downwind of some pretty polluted areas,” he said. According to Austin, these include areas of New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Connecticut that are heavily polluted due to industry, heavy traffic or other factors.

These areas create plumes of pollutants that are blown across the Northeast and turned into ozone upon contact with sunlight, he said.

“It’s a regional problem that’s being worked on regionally,” said Austin, adding that organizations like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Ozone Transport Commission are trying to find ways to decrease such pollution in the Northeast.

Although he said that regional pollution has a greater impact on the state’s air quality than local pollution, Austin acknowledged that local pollution, particularly from the highway, is still a problem. He said that current and future technology developments could make transportation pollution less of a problem moving forward.

“Hopefully we can still keep improving,” he said. “And the modelers are working right now to find opportunities to continue to get emissions savings.”


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