Paddle boarders in the waters of Stony Brook Harbor in...

Paddle boarders in the waters of Stony Brook Harbor in Suffolk County, which has been cited by the American Lung Assocation for air containing high ozone levels. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

Suffolk County air once more received a failing grade from the American Lung Association, which cited high ozone levels in an annual report.

Ground level ozone — formed when the sun’s rays energize fuel emissions and chemicals from the manufacture of paints, pharmaceuticals, and refrigerants — is a prime component of smog. Short-term effects of breathing smog include worsening asthma symptoms and increased susceptibility to pneumonia. Long-term effects include damaged airways, worsened allergies, pregnancy complications and reduced fertility, along with potential affects like brain inflammation and cognitive decline.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s air quality standard for ozone — now under review — is 70 parts per billion.

During the 2020 to 2022 period covered by the lung association's State of the Air report, released this week, Suffolk air violated the standard for 25 days. For 24 days, ozone pollution reached 71 to 88 parts per billion. One day, it reached 86 to 105 parts. No other New York county in the report had as many high ozone days.

“The air we are breathing today is much cleaner than air that we had across the country and across Long Island” in the past, said Michael Seilback, the American Lung Association’s assistant vice president for nationwide advocacy. But, he said, longer and hotter summers under climate change are ripening “conditions for ozone to be forming.” Scientific advances have shown that even minimal exposure to ozone can be deadly, Seilback said.

Nassau was not measured. New York City scored poorly, with three boroughs earning a D grade and Queens earning an F from the lung association. Fairfield County, Connecticut, across Long Island Sound, had the worst ozone pollution on the Eastern Seaboard, with 41 high ozone days. It also earned an F.

The national report included air quality data for 25 New York counties. Suffolk and New York City scored well on measurements for particulate matter, another common form of air pollution, but the report’s authors said the EPA “must set stronger national standards for ozone.”

Scientists recognized years ago that air quality was a persistent problem in the New York metro area. The website of the NASA-backed Long Island Sound Tropospheric Ozone Study describes the “unique” characteristics of the area’s geography: “The relatively cool waters of Long Island Sound confine the pollutants in a shallow and stable marine boundary layer. Afternoon heating over coastal land creates a sea breeze that carries the air pollution inland from the confined marine layer, resulting in high ozone concentrations in Connecticut and at times farther east into Rhode Island and Massachusetts.”

Suffolk’s ozone pollution rate is perennially among the worst of the New York counties included in the lung association’s reports, receiving at least 9 F grades since 2000.

New York officials have said much of the air pollution, which includes increased ozone levels, drifts over from other states. In December, attorney general Letitia James weighed in on a court battle over air quality measures in Kentucky, saying the EPA has the power under the federal Clean Air Act to ensure each state does its fair share to reduce air pollution into other states.

New York’s 2021 ozone plan also attributed ozone pollution to interstate drift and said the state’s efforts to reduce pollution had been frustrated by lax EPA rules and inaction by upwind states. New York’s ozone pollution measures, which the plan said were among the most stringent in the country, include controls for stationary sources like electrical generating units, adoption of California’s vehicle emission standards and measures to reduce ozone pollutants from consumer products, asphalt paving and other sources.

In 2019, according to the report, about two thirds of the state's human-generated emissions of nitrous oxide, an ozone precursor, came from transportation, and the balance came from stationary fuel combustion and other sources. For another precursor, volatile organic compounds, more than half came from industrial processes. The balance came from transportation and other sources.

In a statement, Gregson Pigott, the Suffolk County Department of Health Services commissioner, said county health officials “encourage our residents to join the American Lung Association in urging EPA to strengthen the limit on air pollution.” The county also issues health alerts whenever air quality is poor, he said.

EPA spokeswoman Shayla Powell wrote in an email that the agency was improving air quality by slashing methane emissions from oil and natural gas operations and imposing the “strongest standards … in history” for passenger cars, light-duty trucks and medium-duty vehicles. The agency is also administering a $5 billion grant program for states and local governments to implement “ambitious plans for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and other harmful air pollution.”

Doctors said it was difficult to attribute health impacts from air pollution exclusively to ozone increase, but that there was little doubt that respiratory symptoms and emergency visits increased on days when ozone levels are high.

“That data is quite clear,” said Dr. Ken Spaeth, medical director of Northwell Health’s Occupational and Environmental Medicine Center. “That’s why hot days are such a driver of air quality alert days.” Current regulations may need to be tightened, he said. “What we once thought of as safe or appropriate is clearly not,” and there is an “ongoing push” in the public health community for better air quality standards.

People who work outside may not be able to avoid exposure on high air pollution days. But Dr. Norman Edelman, a pulmonologist at Stony Brook Medicine, said it was now basic practice to advise patients to limit or stagger outdoor recreation on those days. “If you want to jog, jog at 5 a.m. before traffic builds up, or at 8 p.m., when the traffic has wound down. If you have preexisting lung disease. It’s probably a good idea to skip the jogging that day.”

He also advises patients who use aerosolized medications to temporarily increase use, but that should only be done after consultation with a doctor, he said.

Suffolk County air once more received a failing grade from the American Lung Association, which cited high ozone levels in an annual report.

Ground level ozone — formed when the sun’s rays energize fuel emissions and chemicals from the manufacture of paints, pharmaceuticals, and refrigerants — is a prime component of smog. Short-term effects of breathing smog include worsening asthma symptoms and increased susceptibility to pneumonia. Long-term effects include damaged airways, worsened allergies, pregnancy complications and reduced fertility, along with potential affects like brain inflammation and cognitive decline.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s air quality standard for ozone — now under review — is 70 parts per billion.

High ozone days

During the 2020 to 2022 period covered by the lung association's State of the Air report, released this week, Suffolk air violated the standard for 25 days. For 24 days, ozone pollution reached 71 to 88 parts per billion. One day, it reached 86 to 105 parts. No other New York county in the report had as many high ozone days.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Suffolk County air once more received a failing grade from the American Lung Association, which cited high ozone levels in an annual report.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency’s air quality standard for ozone — now under review — is 70 parts per billion.
  • During the 2020 to 2022 period covered by the lung association's State of the Air report, released this week, Suffolk air violated the EPA standard for 25 days.

“The air we are breathing today is much cleaner than air that we had across the country and across Long Island” in the past, said Michael Seilback, the American Lung Association’s assistant vice president for nationwide advocacy. But, he said, longer and hotter summers under climate change are ripening “conditions for ozone to be forming.” Scientific advances have shown that even minimal exposure to ozone can be deadly, Seilback said.

Nassau was not measured. New York City scored poorly, with three boroughs earning a D grade and Queens earning an F from the lung association. Fairfield County, Connecticut, across Long Island Sound, had the worst ozone pollution on the Eastern Seaboard, with 41 high ozone days. It also earned an F.

The national report included air quality data for 25 New York counties. Suffolk and New York City scored well on measurements for particulate matter, another common form of air pollution, but the report’s authors said the EPA “must set stronger national standards for ozone.”

Persistent air pollution

Scientists recognized years ago that air quality was a persistent problem in the New York metro area. The website of the NASA-backed Long Island Sound Tropospheric Ozone Study describes the “unique” characteristics of the area’s geography: “The relatively cool waters of Long Island Sound confine the pollutants in a shallow and stable marine boundary layer. Afternoon heating over coastal land creates a sea breeze that carries the air pollution inland from the confined marine layer, resulting in high ozone concentrations in Connecticut and at times farther east into Rhode Island and Massachusetts.”

Suffolk’s ozone pollution rate is perennially among the worst of the New York counties included in the lung association’s reports, receiving at least 9 F grades since 2000.

New York officials have said much of the air pollution, which includes increased ozone levels, drifts over from other states. In December, attorney general Letitia James weighed in on a court battle over air quality measures in Kentucky, saying the EPA has the power under the federal Clean Air Act to ensure each state does its fair share to reduce air pollution into other states.

New York’s 2021 ozone plan also attributed ozone pollution to interstate drift and said the state’s efforts to reduce pollution had been frustrated by lax EPA rules and inaction by upwind states. New York’s ozone pollution measures, which the plan said were among the most stringent in the country, include controls for stationary sources like electrical generating units, adoption of California’s vehicle emission standards and measures to reduce ozone pollutants from consumer products, asphalt paving and other sources.

The human factor

In 2019, according to the report, about two thirds of the state's human-generated emissions of nitrous oxide, an ozone precursor, came from transportation, and the balance came from stationary fuel combustion and other sources. For another precursor, volatile organic compounds, more than half came from industrial processes. The balance came from transportation and other sources.

In a statement, Gregson Pigott, the Suffolk County Department of Health Services commissioner, said county health officials “encourage our residents to join the American Lung Association in urging EPA to strengthen the limit on air pollution.” The county also issues health alerts whenever air quality is poor, he said.

EPA spokeswoman Shayla Powell wrote in an email that the agency was improving air quality by slashing methane emissions from oil and natural gas operations and imposing the “strongest standards … in history” for passenger cars, light-duty trucks and medium-duty vehicles. The agency is also administering a $5 billion grant program for states and local governments to implement “ambitious plans for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and other harmful air pollution.”

More emergency visits

Doctors said it was difficult to attribute health impacts from air pollution exclusively to ozone increase, but that there was little doubt that respiratory symptoms and emergency visits increased on days when ozone levels are high.

“That data is quite clear,” said Dr. Ken Spaeth, medical director of Northwell Health’s Occupational and Environmental Medicine Center. “That’s why hot days are such a driver of air quality alert days.” Current regulations may need to be tightened, he said. “What we once thought of as safe or appropriate is clearly not,” and there is an “ongoing push” in the public health community for better air quality standards.

People who work outside may not be able to avoid exposure on high air pollution days. But Dr. Norman Edelman, a pulmonologist at Stony Brook Medicine, said it was now basic practice to advise patients to limit or stagger outdoor recreation on those days. “If you want to jog, jog at 5 a.m. before traffic builds up, or at 8 p.m., when the traffic has wound down. If you have preexisting lung disease. It’s probably a good idea to skip the jogging that day.”

He also advises patients who use aerosolized medications to temporarily increase use, but that should only be done after consultation with a doctor, he said.

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