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Erie County gets mixed grades in annual air quality report

The air in Erie County is improving, but it’s still unhealthy.

The American Lung Association’s 17th annual State of the Air report, released Wednesday, gave Erie County a failing grade for ozone pollution.

That discouraging news was tempered, however, by the county’s second straight A grade for short-term pollutants emitted from power plants and exhaust from vehicles and diesel engines. Erie County received its first-ever A grade last year.

The mixed report is a story playing out in many places across the Northeast – and inside New York State – where conditions are improving, but not fast enough.

“Air pollution remains a major health threat,” said Paul Billings, the lung association’s senior vice president for advocacy. “Far too many people are breathing unhealthy air on far too many days.”

The association’s report, which includes air monitoring data from the three-year period spanning 2012 to 2014, found there were 19 total “high ozone days” over that time period in Erie County. Last year’s State of the Air report found there were eight such days and the county received a D rating.

Officials pointed out that a stricter federal standard for measuring unhealthy ozone went into effect last fall, boosting the numbers in this year’s report. The Environmental Protection Agency reduced the threshold for categorizing unhealthy levels of ozone from 75 parts per billion, which it set in 2008, to 70 parts per billion.

“I think it’s fair to assume Erie would have failed last year had a stricter standard been in place,” said Mike Seilback, vice president of public policy and communications for the American Lung Association of the Northeast. “The trend, though, shows a slight improvement when we viewed through the new standard’s lens.”

Ozone, commonly referred to as “smog,” is a hazardous gas resulting from the chemical reaction of nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, heat and sunlight. When inhaled, ozone attacks lung tissue, making it harder for people to breathe. It’s especially stressful on children, the elderly, asthmatics and those with heart disease.

In many instances, ozone pollution is generated from areas outside of those most directly affected by it, lung association officials pointed out.

“It’s an area downwind of an area where these emissions come from where you’ll see these high readings,” Billings said.

Added Seilback: “Air pollution doesn’t care about our political boundaries like where one county stops and another county starts.”

Meanwhile, the lung association gave passing grades for annual air particle pollution for all New York counties where data was available. Each of those counties, including Erie, also received A ratings and reported no high particle pollution days between 2012 and 2014.

The city of Buffalo, and neighboring Cheektowaga, were listed together among the top 93 “cleanest U.S. cities for short-term particle pollution,” the data showed.