Air quality in the D.C. region has continued to improve over the last year, but parts of the metro area remain highly polluted by ground-level ozone smog, according to the American Lung Association’s “2023 State of the Air Report,” released on April 19.  

Prince George’s County and the District both received ‘F’ grades for ozone pollution, which can cause respiratory issues and trigger asthma attacks. Recent research has also linked long-term exposure to increased risks for cardiovascular issues and metabolic disorders like hyperglycemia and diabetes. Three other Maryland counties — Anne Arundel, Baltimore County, and Harford — also received failing grades for ozone. The Washington region as a whole ranked 26th worst out of 227 metro areas, dropping four places down from last year’s report

However, when it came to fine particle pollution, another common and harmful air pollutant,  every Maryland county received an ‘A’ or ‘B’ grade from the American Lung Association. The District received a C. Across the region and the nation, air quality has improved dramatically since the organization first began tracking it in 1996. 

Air pollution and environmental injustice

Dr. Stephanie Lovinsky-Desir, a New York-based pediatric pulmonologist (Courtesy photo)
Dr. Stephanie Lovinsky-Desir, a New York-based pediatric pulmonologist (Courtesy photo)

However, the overall improvement in U.S. air quality has not touched all communities equally.

“The findings from this recent State of the Air report demonstrate that air quality has improved across the nation, which I think is great,” said Dr. Stephanie Lovinsky-Desir, a pediatric pulmonologist in New York City. “But the problem is that there are still major differences existing between which neighborhoods and which people are exposed to worse air quality.”

Nationally, people of color are 3.7 times more likely to live in a county that fails on all three pollution measures used in the American Lung Association’s report. Lovinsky-Desir said that the disparity has actually widened somewhat in recent years. 

“Lots of policies have been implemented in order to improve air quality, but we know that these policies are not routinely experienced across all neighborhoods in all communities,” she said. “It might be easier, or there may be more advocacy, to comply with these policies in richer and whiter neighborhoods than historically marginalized communities.”

That national trend plays out in the District. One 2021 study published in the journal GeoHealth found that some neighborhoods in Southeast experience more than four times as many premature deaths related to pollution compared to some wealthy areas in Northwest.

Clean-air fight in Ward 5 illustrates nationwide problem

Sebrena Rhodes, a community organizer with Empower DC and Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner for Ivy City in Ward 5, has been fighting for clean air in her community for years.

“Ivy City is one of the oldest Black communities in the District. We have a chemical plant that’s been here since 1930 with no air quality permit,” Rhodes explained. Her ongoing fight to close that plant, National Engineering Products, became the subject of “People Rising: Ivy City,” a short documentary released at the D.C. Environmental Film Festival earlier this spring.

“This chemical plant has been emitting cancer-causing chemicals — methylene chloride and formaldehyde are two of the most deadly chemicals,” Rhodes said. “And they have been emitting these chemicals in our air, in our community, since they started.”

Ward 5 has the highest concentration of land zoned for industrial purposes in the city. Many of those industrial sites — including the chemical plant — sit right next to residential properties. The Brentwood neighborhood hosts a paving company, an asphalt plant and transfer stations for recycling and trash. 

“Even on a good day, where you can breathe, residents are not able to open their windows or sit on their porches because it’s almost like you’re sitting next to your trash can,” Rhodes said. 

Not just about smells, and not just about numbers

As with many environmental issues, the problem of air pollution isn’t really about air — it’s about the people breathing it. Empower DC conducted an online survey of residents in Brentwood last year, and Rhodes said the same breathing issues showed up over and over. 

“A lot of folks have upper respiratory issues: bronchitis, asthma,” she said. “A lot of the children are missing days of school because of the same.”

The two major types of air pollution monitored by the State of the Air Report — ground-level ozone and fine particulate matter — can both cause health issues, especially for people who have other risk factors. The report identifies many types of people for whom air pollution may have outsized impacts, including children, seniors, people with asthma and people with heart conditions, among others. 

Lovinsky-Desir said her young patients can often feel the difference between clean and dirty air in a matter of months or weeks. 

“I have patients who, say, spend the summer down south in a neighborhood or community where there’s less traffic pollution, and they tell me that their asthma is significantly better,” she said. 

But traveling or relocating isn’t the only practical step individuals can take to minimize the impacts of air pollution on their health. Lovinsky-Desir recommended regularly checking a weather app that tracks air quality data, and she said she advises her patients with asthma to avoid physical activity outdoors on high-pollution days. 

On a community-wide scale, Lovinsky-Desir said anyone who has the opportunity to advocate for environmental justice needs to take it whenever possible. 

“If we’re not speaking up and speaking out about why this is impacting us as people who live in these neighborhoods and communities, then we get forgotten,” she said.

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