Apr 28, 2023 - Climate

Air quality has improved in New Orleans in last decade

Change in air quality by metro area, 2015 to 2021
Data: EPA; Note: A concentration below 12 micrograms per cubic meter is considered healthy; Chart: Axios Visuals

Air quality in New Orleans, as measured by fine particle pollution, has improved since 2012, Axios' Alex Fitzpatrick and Kavya Beheraj report. Bad news — it's gotten worse in the rest of Louisiana.

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 U.S. 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.
Air quality in the <b style='text-decoration: underline; text-underline-position: under; color: #6533ff;'>New Orleans</b> metro area and <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

By the numbers: The three-year rolling annual average concentration of fine particle pollution in New Orleans was 7.6 micrograms per cubic meter as of 2021 (the latest year for which data is available), compared to 9.5 micrograms in 2012 — a 20% decrease.

  • Concentrations below 12 micrograms per cubic meter are considered healthy, the EPA says — though it is seeking to tighten that standard.

The big picture: Broadly speaking, 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, air quality nationally is worsening accordingly.

What's next: The EPA in January proposed reducing its fine particle pollution standard from 12 micrograms per cubic meter to "a level between 9 and 10."

Yes, but: Public health advocacy groups say the fine particle standard should be even lower than the EPA's proposed range.

  • The agency's proposal "misses the mark and is inadequate to protect public health from this deadly pollutant," the American Lung Association said in a statement.

The other side: Industry groups, meanwhile, argue that lowering the standard would be overly burdensome.

The bottom line: As the fight over lowering the fine particle standard heats up, the EPA once again finds itself at the heart of the climate change and public health debate.

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