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How clean is Louisiana's air? A new report grades parish air quality

Louisiana aerial bridge
Kezia Setyawan
Cars travel across the Woodland Highway in Plaquemines Parish, crossing over the Intracoastal Waterway on April 27, 2022.

The number of people exposed to deadly particle pollution is growing nationwide, but in Louisiana, the air quality remains relatively unchanged, according to a new report from the American Lung Association.

Unlike on the West Coast, where air issues are on the rise largely due to wildfires, Louisiana parishes faced similar levels of air pollution as the lung health advocacy group’s report last year.

That’s good news because the air isn’t getting worse, said Ashley Lyerly, the association’s senior director for advocacy in Louisiana. But in parts of the state, the air is still far from clean, according to the report. And in other areas, the air quality is unclear due to a lack of monitoring.

The American Lung Association’s State of the Air report released on April 21 examines air quality nationwide across three-year periods using data from the Environmental Protection Agency. It looks at two types of pollutants: ozone and particle.

Ozone, while safe when the gas is high in the atmosphere, can cause respiratory problems in high concentrations closer to the ground. It’s created by chemical reactions from other gasses emitted by cars, power plants, refineries and other industrial plants.

Particle pollution involves breathing tiny specks of dust smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter — meaning they’re ultrafine and can even find their way into the bloodstream. When ozone and particulate matter combine, it’s called smog.

While smog in East Baton Rouge Parish has greatly improved over the past 20 years, it was still one of two parishes to receive a failing grade in the group’s 2022 State of the Air report for residents' exposure to high ozone levels. A failing grade for ozone in the report is designed to mirror when the number of unhealthy days exceeds the federal ozone standard.

East Baton Rouge Parish recorded 14 “orange” days — or days when it’s unhealthy for sensitive groups like children or those with asthma to stay outside for extended periods. Iberville Parish followed closely behind with 13 orange days.

This graph shows how the weighted average of unhealthy ozone days has changed in East Baton Rouge Parish from 1996 to 2019, according to the American Lung Association's State of the Air report.
American Lung Association
This graph shows how the weighted average of unhealthy ozone days has changed in East Baton Rouge Parish from 1996 to 2019, according to the American Lung Association's State of the Air report.

High levels of smog can lead to more asthma attacks and cardiovascular damage, Lyerly said. Long-term exposure can even lead to developmental or reproductive issues.

“A lot of that has to do with topography, but also industry that may be located in a particular area that could be impacting air quality,” she said.

That kind of data isn’t available to everyone in the state. For example, Orleans Parish was one of 46 parishes in the state that didn’t collect monitoring data for ozone, leaving residents in the dark about some types of air quality.

While Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality maintains 41 stationary air monitors across the state, not all of those monitor for ozone or particulate matter, according to the agency’s website. Some monitor for other pollutants present in that area such as sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide or nitrogen oxide. And those monitors aren’t spread evenly around the state, placed instead near plants likely emitting those pollutants.

There have been pushes to increase monitoring in the state, includingbills to require industrial facilities to pay for adding air monitors near their site that send data directly to the state agency, but they’ve failed because the department said it doesn’t have the money to pay for staff to compile that data.

New Orleans does monitor for particle matter, among other pollutants, and maintains a passing grade. But 51 of the state’s 64 parishes don’t have a monitor for particle either, according to the report.

“Having the data actually tells us how healthy or unhealthy the air quality is,” Lyerly said. “We could be doing more in the state of Louisiana to have air quality monitoring, so that we can fully understand the impact of air quality.”

The report recommends for states and local communities to invest in more monitoring “to capture pollution levels that disproportionately impact communities near polluting sources.”

“If we have unhealthy air in a particular area, then we can begin to make changes to strengthen standards for certain industries that might help us to improve that air quality,” Lyerly said.

At a national level, as climate change drives more disasters, such as the wildfires out West, the advocacy group wants the federal government to strengthen air quality standards to make them more protective of human health.

“By setting stronger standards that follow the science on just how deadly particle pollution is, (that) will help to really drive major cleanup of polluting sources in communities across the country,” said Will Barrett, the lung association’s senior advocacy director for clean air.

Halle Parker reports on the environment for WWNO's Coastal Desk. You can reach her at hparker@wwno.org.

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