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Air pollution in North Carolina sees historic lows, according to new report

trees one.jpg

North Carolinian trees display their bright fall colors.

Emissions of harmful pollutants in North Carolina have reached historic lows, according to a recent report by the N.C. Division of Air Quality.

Compared to previous decades, there have been major improvements in lowering criteria air pollutants like sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, fine particulate matter and volatile organic compounds. The Clean Air Act requires regulation of those specific air pollutants.

For example, North Carolina had 94 percent fewer sulfur dioxide emissions from 1990 through 2020.

Shawn Taylor, the public information officer for the N.C. Division of Air Quality, said many of these declines occurred in the early 2000s, partially because of the state's 2002 Clean Smokestacks Act.

“It required coal power plants to reduce their emissions,” Taylor said. “As a result, North Carolina had, throughout the 2000s and 2010s, far less emissions of pollutants like nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxides than surrounding states.” 

Neil Alexis, a professor in UNC's Department of Pediatrics and the associate director of the Center of Environmental Medicine, Asthma and Lung Biology at UNC, said criteria pollutant levels trending downward is a good start, but there are still things people need to worry about.

He said other pollutants that induce health effects, such as wildfire smoke, have recently emerged. He also said that "clean" is a subjective term when describing air. 

Levels are used to rate the concentration of air pollution, and while one level might be safe for someone who is healthy, it may be dangerous for those who are sensitive to air pollution — especially those with asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and other respiratory diseases.

“I'm not sure we truly know what that bottom level is to protect susceptible people,” Alexis said. “That's why we need to keep doing the work until we come up with a level that we think will protect everybody.”

Jim Warren, the executive director of NC WARN, a clean energy nonprofit, agreed. He said there are “smoke and mirrors” in the greenhouse gas side of this report.

He said important data on methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas, was missing from the report. He also said Gov. Roy Cooper and Duke Energy like to pretend the gas doesn’t exist in the state's electric power industry.

Methane was listed in the report as a greenhouse gas pollutant. The main source of methane in the state was listed as waste management and agriculture on the report, not electricity generation.

He also said some communities benefit from the reduction in air pollution less than others, such as people who live close to electric power plants and places where there is transportation pollution. 

Alexis said there are studies that show that people who live closer to major roadways, highways and busy streets have more exposure to emissions and criteria air pollutants.

“It's likely no surprise that the lower socioeconomic status neighborhoods tend to be closer to those high exposure areas than the more affluent neighborhoods,” Alexis said. 

He said socioeconomic status is a factor for risk of exposure and affects other things, like nutrition, that also impacts respiratory diseases.

Chelsea Lyons, the North Carolina field coordinator for Mom’s Clean Air Force, said the nonprofit is a community of 1.5 million parents in the U.S. who are dedicated to fighting against air pollution for the benefit of their children’s health. She said a lot of children affected by air pollutants and environmental health issues live in low-income communities.

“Being able to address the air pollution now and address it so that our future kids can have a better access to health and healthcare, is really what we’re focused on,” she said.

 @DTHCityState | city@dailytarheel.com

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