Apr 28, 2023 - Climate

How Tampa Bay's air quality is declining

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

Air quality in Tampa Bay, as measured by fine particle pollution, has worsened since 2015.

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, according to a 2021 New York University study.
  • 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.
  • Fine particles β€” also known as PM2.5 due to their tiny size of 2.5 micrometers β€” are the most hazardous form of particulate matter.

By the numbers: The three-year rolling annual average concentration of fine particle pollution across the Tampa Bay area was 7.8 micrograms per cubic meter as of 2021 (the latest year for which data is available), compared to 7.0 in 2015 β€” an 11% increase.

  • Of note: Concentrations below 12 micrograms per cubic meter are considered healthy, the EPA says β€” though it is seeking to tighten that standard.

What they're saying: Ashley Lyerly, the American Lung Association's senior director of advocacy for Florida, told Axios that other factors like increased heat and storms could be what's causing Tampa Bay's low air quality.

Yes, but: She points to the association's State of Air report, which shows other air quality factors for Tampa Bay improving from 2019-2021.

  • Hillsborough County's notoriously bad ozone counts improved slightly, and Northport-Sarasota and Orlando-Lakeland-Deltona tied for cleanest metropolitan areas in the country for 24-hour particle pollution.
Change in air quality by metro area, 2015 to 2021
Data: EPA; Map: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

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 per year and 270,000 lost workdays per year, and result in as much as $43 billion in net health benefits in 2032, the agency says.
  • The EPA is also taking other steps to improve air quality, including via 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, 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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