May 15, 2023 - News

Austin air quality remains level

Change in air quality by metro area, 2015 to 2021
Data: EPA; Map: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

Austin air quality in the Austin metro area, as measured by fine particle pollution, has stayed about the same over the last decade.

Why it matters: Fine particles, generated from fossil fuel burning and other sources, can enter our bodies when we breathe, making their way to the lungs or bloodstream and causing myriad health problems.

  • They are linked to nearly 11,000 excess deaths across the United States annually, by one estimate.
  • Non-white and low-income Americans are at a higher risk of death from exposure to fine particle pollution compared to other groups, per a 2022 study published in Nature.

By the numbers: The three-year rolling annual average concentration of fine particle pollution throughout the Austin area was 9.4 micrograms per cubic meter as of 2021 (the latest year for which data is available), just a 2% increase from 2012.

  • Concentrations below 12 micrograms per cubic meter are considered healthy, the Environmental Protection Agency says — though it is seeking to tighten that standard.
  • Nationally, the concentration was 8.5 micrograms in 2021.
Air quality in the <b style='text-decoration: underline; text-underline-position: under; color: #6533ff;'>Austin</b> metro area and the <b style='text-decoration: underline; text-underline-position: under; color: #13c278;'>U.S.</b>
Data: EPA; Note: A concentration below 12 micrograms per cubic meter is considered healthy; Chart: Axios Visuals

Between the lines: While Austin isn't a major industrial city, it has long labored to stay just this side of federal air quality standards.

  • Auto owners in Travis and Williamson counties have to spend at least $11.50 annually for a vehicle emissions test, part of an effort to stave off federal smog-violation penalties.
  • Those penalties could mean lowering speed limits or forcing gas stations to sell reformulated gasoline — which leads to fewer emissions but gets 1% to 3% fewer miles and costs as much as 4 cents more per gallon.

The big picture: Air quality generally improved nationwide during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, in part because fewer people were driving.

  • But as the pandemic ebbs and people's behaviors and activities return to normal, national air quality is worsening.
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