May 1, 2023 - Climate

The Natural State's air quality beats national average

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

Air quality in the Northwest Arkansas metro area, as measured by fine particle pollution, has improved since 2012, Axios' Alex Fitzpatrick and Kavya Beheraj report.

Driving the news: Monday kicks off National Air Quality Awareness Week.

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

  • They are linked to nearly 11,000 deaths across the U.S. annually, by one estimate.
  • Nonwhite 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 the research journal Nature.
  • Fine particles — known as PM2.5 due to their tiny size of 2.5 micrometers — are the most hazardous form of particulate matter.

By the numbers: The three-year rolling annual average concentration of fine particle pollution across the NWA area was 7.7 micrograms per cubic meter as of 2021 (the latest year for which data is available) compared to 10.8 in 2012 — a 29% decrease.

  • Concentrations below 12 micrograms per cubic meter are considered healthy, the EPA says.
Change in air quality by metro area, 2015 to 2021
Data: EPA; Map: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

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 behaviors and activities return to normal, air quality nationally is worsening.
  • Air quality decreased notably between 2015 and 2021 in parts of Western states where periods of extreme drought have created conditions for wildfires, and increased pollution from smoke.

Zoom in: Air pollution levels decreased by 10% in NWA and Little Rock, and 11% in Fort Smith, between 2015 and 2021.

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."

  • Changing the standard to 9 micrograms would prevent up to 4,200 premature deaths and 270,000 lost workdays per year, resulting in as much as $43 billion in net health benefits in 2032, the agency says.
  • The EPA is also taking steps to improve air quality, including newly proposed vehicle emissions standards.

Yes, but: Public health advocacy groups say the fine particulate 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 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 again finds itself at the heart of the climate change and public health debate.

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