Mar 21, 2023 - News

Columbus' complicated pollution problem

Illustration of a car spewing exhaust in the shape of an upward trendline.

Illustration: Gabriella Turrisi/Axios

Columbus was named the "most polluted major U.S. city" of 2022 in a recent report by Swiss air technology company IQAir.

  • The planning commission that monitors our region's air quality is looking into the study's scope and methodology as it makes national headlines.

Why it matters: Poor air quality affects everybody, but it's especially harmful for older adults, children and people with chronic health conditions.

What they found: Columbus' average concentration of fine particle pollution (PM2.5) was 13.1 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3) in 2022, per IQAir.

Threat level: The World Health Organization's guideline for long-term PM2.5 exposure is less than 5 µg/m3.

  • The EPA has a higher threshold of 12.

What's happening: PM2.5 is a result of factors like combustion engines, construction and burning wood and coal, per the report.

Yes, but: PM2.5 is just one component of the EPA's overall Air Quality Index, which the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC) monitors daily to alert local residents when air pollution reaches unhealthy levels.

  • MORPC's 2022 report indicates ozone quality has significantly improved in recent years.
  • And just 4% of days in MORPC's November 2021-October 2022 monitoring period logged PM2.5 levels exceeding the EPA threshold.

The other side: MORPC sustainability officer Brandi Whetstone tells Axios that IQAir's report appears to merge data from highly precise regulatory monitors, like ones the Ohio EPA operates, with data from low-cost air sensors.

  • Such sensors offer localized readings but, she said, aren't as accurate.

What they're saying: "We’re digging into the report and trying to understand it," Whetstone says.

What we're watching: Columbus is embracing a variety of projects that could improve air quality and reduce car emissions, including the rollout of an electric bus fleet and an impending rebate program for e-bike purchases.

  • Last year the Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) ditched an idea to finance bus line expansion by increasing local sales tax, but that proposal could resurface.
  • Possible Amtrak expansion, meanwhile, could have an impact statewide.

📱 Be smart: Sign up for air quality alerts from MORPC.


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