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Data problem clouds annual St. Louis air report; ozone improves but still gets an 'F'

Air pollution from coal-fired power plants, industrial activities, and cars contributes to asthma and other health problems in the St. Louis area.
Syracuse University News Services

The American Lung Association says a data collection glitch in Illinois means it can’t determine whether air quality in the city of St. Louis has worsened.

The organization is releasing its annual State of the Air report Wednesday. It says the state of Illinois had problems processing particle pollution information.

“That affects St. Louis because the counties that show up with the worst particle pollution levels are in southern Illinois,” said Janice Nolen, Assistant Vice President of National Policy for the American Lung Association.

It’s the 16th national report from the organization and is based on information gathered by federal, state and local governments.

The research suggests that roughly four out of 10 people throughout the country are in counties with unhealthy levels of ozone or particle pollutants.

Progress in Ozone Battle

There is a slightly encouraging sign in the report for the region.

“The St. Louis metropolitan area reduced its ozone from last year’s report. It still gets an F unfortunately,” said Nolen.

The region still experienced too many days of unhealthy ozone levels in 2011-2013, compared to last year’s report, which used information from 2010-2012.

The association is calling on the federal government to strengthen what it calls outdated ozone regulations.

“What we’ve learned in the last few years is that ozone is more harmful than we thought,” said Nolen.

The association says ozone pollution has more recently been linked to possible cardiovascular problems or potential low birth weight.

“There’s a lot of things that we are beginning to learn now as we look beyond the lungs.”

Carbon Reductions Are Key

The proposed Environmental Protection Agency mandate on reducing carbon emissions from power plants also plays into the association’s strategy to clean up the air we breathe.

The association wants the EPA and President Barack Obama to “finish the job” by adopting the Clean Power Plan that was proposed last year.

Nolen says such action should help reduce ozone and particle pollution.

The federal government says it is designed to reduce carbon emissions from power plants by 30 percent and factors that contribute to soot and smog by more than 25 percent by 2030.

The mandate is being challenged in court by power companies, including St. Louis-based Peabody Energy.

It recently submitted arguments in federal court claiming the proposal is unconstitutional.

Obstacles Remain

Nolen said there are some encouraging aspects to this year’s report, “but it’s also a recognition of the challenges that face us.”

She added climate challenges such as heat will not help efforts to clean up ozone and keep particles down.

But there has been progress and Nolen cited Madison County, Illinois, as an example.

From 2001 to 2003, it had 20.7 high-ozone days on average and that is down to 15 days in this year’s report.

“That’s still way too many. We need to be closer to three,” Nolan said.

“We can continue to do this. We’ve had much worse air quality.”

You can view details about your county and city at www.stateoftheair.org

Wayne is the morning newscaster at St. Louis Public Radio.

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