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On Earth Day, Tampa Bay Faces Increased Air Pollution

Graphics demonstrating how air pollution influences people's health
American Lung Association
Researchers see the increase of air pollution nationwide. However, they say COVID-19 pandemic may impact the quality of the air

Wednesday is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, and air quality in the Tampa Bay area is getting slightly worse. 

That's according to the American Lung Association, which also said that while this can affect people with chronic respiratory diseases, it's also a likely challenge for COVID-19 survivors.

Every year, the association releases three years of data on ozone and particle pollution across the U.S. and ranks 228 metropolitan areas. This year’s report covers information from 2016 to 2018.

And it shows more cities had high days of ozone and short-term particle pollution compared to 2015-2017.

The main concern for the Tampa Bay area is ozone pollution, said Ashley Lyerly, Director of Advocacy for the American Lung Association.

“Unfortunately, the Tampa – St. Petersburg – Clearwater metropolitan area did show signs of more unhealthy days for ozone, which is worse than last year's report. It currently ranks number 68 of most polluted for ozone,” said Lyerly.

Though the ozone layer found high in the upper atmosphere is good protection from the sun's ultraviolet radiation, at ground level, ozone can cause serious health problems, particularly for those with breathing issues.

“Ozone pollution is particularly dangerous for those individuals who are older, for children and certainly for those with lung disease that have COPD or asthma," said Lyerly. "Also, breathing in ozone-polluted air can trigger an asthma attack and can certainly result in someone going to the doctor's office or going to the emergency room.”

Since COVID-19 survivors may suffer from long-term respiratory system effects from the disease, air pollution may be a potential danger to them in the future. But there is no actual data about that yet, said Lyerly.

The reason behind increasing ozone pollution in the Tampa Bay area can be our temperature. Ozone forms when heat and sunlight cause chemical reactions between oxides of nitrogen and volatile organic compounds that are contained in vehicle emissions and industrial exhausts.

“We can attribute that to climate change,” said Lyerly. “In 2016, 2017 and 2018, we saw some of the hottest temperatures across the nation.”

There is some good news, though. Tampa Bay area has a slightly lower rating for annual particle pollution in comparison to 2015 – 2017. It is also ranked as one of the cleanest metropolitan areas as it relates to short-term levels of particle pollution.

According to the report, the cleanest air in Florida is in Gainesville, Lake City, Palm Bay, Melbourne and Titusville. You can see data for your county here.

Lyerly said that, nationwide, the researchers are seeing air quality getting worse, reporting an increase of about 8.76 million people who lived in counties with unhealthy air.

However, she added that the coronavirus pandemic may actually end up having a positive effect on this.

“There are suggestions and some recent early evidence data that shows that reduced driving and other impacts from COVID-19 can lead to lower levels of air pollution for 2020.  It's certainly not the way that we want to be improving air quality,” said Lyerly. “But we do see that an illustration that greatly reduced emissions will improve the air we breathe, and certainly could foreshadow what could come with if we actually had more zero-emission vehicles on the road.”

Lyerly named several simple rules that can help people reduce the effects of polluted air on their lungs.

“(All people) healthy or not, but especially those with lung disease, especially during the summer months and warmer days, need to pay attention to the status of the air quality,” she said. “Pay attention to warnings for high ozone days and make sure that you stay inside. If you are athletic and want to get outside, make sure that you do that earlier in the day, before the temperatures warm up.

“And certainly, if you drive a vehicle, on warmer days fill that gas tank up later in the day because we know that gasoline and other vehicle emissions with exposure to sunlight will create ozone.”

Maria Tsyruleva is the WUSF/USF Zimmerman School digital news editor for fall 2019.
WUSF 89.7 depends on donors for the funding it takes to provide you the most trusted source of news and information here in town, across our state, and around the world. Support WUSF now by giving monthly, or make a one-time donation online.