May 2, 2023 - Climate

Maybe Columbus' air isn't so bad, after all

Air quality in the <b style='text-decoration: underline; text-underline-position: under; color: #6533ff;'>Columbus</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

Our region's air quality, as measured by fine particle pollution, has improved significantly since 2000, according to EPA data.

Why it matters: The data, analyzed by Axios' Alex Fitzpatrick and Kavya Beheraj, offers a different take from a March report using 2022 data by Swiss technology company IQAir that dubbed Columbus the country's "most polluted major U.S. city."

  • The split illustrates how different types of air-monitoring devices can yield different results.

Threat level: Fine particle pollution (PM2.5), generated from fossil fuel-burning and other sources, can enter our bodies when we breathe, make its way to the lungs or bloodstream and cause a range of health problems.

By the numbers: The Columbus metro area's three-year rolling annual average concentration of PM2.5 was 9 micrograms per cubic meter as of 2021, per the EPA — half as much as 2000's 18.2.

Of note: The World Health Organization's guideline for long-term PM2.5 exposure is less than 5 micrograms, while the EPA has a higher threshold of 12.

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

Flashback: IQAir reported earlier this year that Columbus' concentration in 2022 was 13.1 micrograms.

  • The report combined data from highly precise EPA regulatory monitors with data from low-cost air sensors like PurpleAir, which anyone can buy and connect to a public online database.
  • While the latter can be useful for monitoring hyperlocal areas, Ohio EPA spokesperson James Lee tells Axios they aren't as reliable for monitoring regional trends.

The other side: Glory Dolphin Hammes, CEO of IQAir North America, says both data sets have value, as Columbus has just one regulatory EPA monitor in city limits, on the Far Northwest Side.

  • "A resident of any city should look at all of the air quality data available, specifically the data that is in closest proximity to them, in order to make informed choices related to their health," Dolphin Hammes says.

What we're watching: The Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission and Franklin County Public Health are conducting a study of local PurpleAir sensors, with results expected later this year.

Meanwhile, the EPA has proposed reducing its fine particle pollution standard from 12 micrograms per cubic meter to between 9 and 10 later this year — which would likely require additional efforts locally to remain compliant as our city grows.

  • Public health advocacy groups say the standard should be even lower, while industry groups argue that lowering the standard would be overly burdensome.

Editor's note: The story has been corrected to attribute a quote from IQAir to the CEO of the company, not a spokesperson.


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