A monitoring station in Glen Cove found that pollution levels...

A monitoring station in Glen Cove found that pollution levels exceeded WHO guidelines by 2 to 3 times. Above, School Road in downtown Glen Cove.  Credit: Jeff Bachner

Long Island particulate air pollution exceeds the World Health Organization’s air quality standards for 2021, according to a report by a Swiss-based air quality technology company, but experts say the numbers remain lower than expected. 

IQAir, a company that monitors air quality globally, based its March 2022 report on particulate matter, or PM 2.5, and on air quality data from 6,475 cities in 117 countries, regions and territories. PM 2.5 refers to particles found in the air, that are 2½ microns or less in width including dust, soot, dirt, smoke, and liquid droplets. 

The air quality monitoring stations include five on Long Island that showed Riverhead, Holtsville, East Northport and Westbury exceeded WHO’s guidelines by 1 to 2 times. Data from a station in Glen Cove showed that the area exceeded WHO’s guidelines by 2 to 3 times.

According to the report, only 222 cities of those analyzed had average air quality that met WHO’s standard, of 5 micrograms per cubic meter of PM 2.5. In September 2021, WHO updated its guidelines from 10 micrograms per cubic meter down to 5, citing a need “to protect the health of populations, by reducing levels of key air pollutants.”

What to know

  • Particulate levels exceeded WHO guidelines by 1 to 2 times at monitoring stations in Riverhead, Holtsville, East Northport and Westbury.
  • A monitoring station in Glen Cove showed that the area exceeded WHO’s guidelines by 2 to 3 times.
  • WHO tightened its standard in September 2021 from 10 micrograms per cubic meter down to 5, citing a need to protect the public's health.
  • Increased particulate rates can increase the possibility of respiratory illness and have cardiovascular effects.
  • Reducing the use of vehicles and transitioning to renewable technology and electric cars can improve air quality, experts say.

Daniel Knopf, a professor of atmospheric science and chemistry at Stony Brook University, said the PM 2.5 is a great health concern worldwide, causing illnesses and deaths. According to WHO, in 2016, around 4.2 million premature deaths were associated with outdoor air pollution.

Though he wasn’t surprised about Long Island exceeding the guidelines, Knopf said the numbers were lower than expected.

“These are low numbers considering we are so close to New York City, and we are so densely populated,” Knopf said. “We sometimes have the advantage of sea breezes, a bit of dilution due to the oceans, so being in a coastal area helps a bit.”

Traffic along the Long Island Expressway in Islandia on May 27,...

Traffic along the Long Island Expressway in Islandia on May 27, 2021. Experts say switching to electric vehicles and other clean technology will help Long Island lower its levels of particulate matter. Credit: James Carbone

He noted that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s PM 2.5 primary standard is 12 micrograms per cubic meter, higher than WHO’s guidelines. Using those standards, the air quality would be normal, he said, but lowering the PM 2.5 standard can help reduce illnesses and deaths.

“It’s still a concern and lower is better in that regard,” Knopf said.

Jase Bernhardt, an assistant professor in the Department of Geology, Environment and Sustainability at Hofstra University, said cars, factories and hotter temperatures contribute to the area's low air quality. He said the changes made to WHO’s guidelines can be beneficial for health.

“It’s one of those risky things that the more PM 2.5 that you're exposed to, the higher your risk to develop adverse things later on in life, so therefore you want to have the standard be as strict as possible to limit as many people as you can being exposed to this pollutant,” Bernhardt said.

Both Knopf and Bernhardt agreed that limiting motor vehicle use, which produces nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide emissions, can help improve the air quality conditions.

“If you look at New York City, you see the Long Island Expressway, Grand Central Parkway, those areas pop out as having worse air quality because of the vehicles,” Bernhardt said. “If we limit vehicle emission, we improve air quality.”

In Nassau County, a spokesman for County Executive Bruce Blakeman said he is committed to preserving Long Island's natural environment for future generations.

“Just this week, he was proud to partner with the Legislative majority to approve the purchase of multiple electric NICE buses and will continue to look for smart ways to make Nassau more environmentally friendly while saving taxpayers money,” Nassau County spokesman Chris Boyle said in a statement.

Suffolk County officials did not return a request for comment. 

The state Department of Environmental control issued a statement Thursday saying, "New York State has implemented some of the most stringent control programs for pollutants in the country to improve air quality and ensure the protection of public health and the environment."

Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said Long Island needs to transition to renewable technology and electric cars to improve air quality. She said bad air quality, especially from vehicle emissions, can increase risk of diseases such as asthma, heart attacks and other respiratory illnesses.

“These are very serious pollutants that we can’t see and we can’t taste, but it’s very damaging.” Esposito said. “One thing about Long Island that we can all agree on is that traffic is awful, but what we don’t realize is that it’s also bad for our health.”

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