The Phoenix metro area is one of the most ozone-polluted cities in the United States, according to the most recent State of the Air report from the American Lung Association. The report emphasized people of color are especially affected by air pollution and the health issues it can cause.
In addition to being ranked the fifth-most ozone-polluted city for the second year in a row, the report also said the metro area tied for seventh place for year-round particle pollution and 13th for cities most polluted by short-term particle pollution.
Maricopa County ranked seventh among most-polluted counties in the United States for ozone pollution and it received failing grades for high ozone days and particle pollution in the association’s county report card.
The Phoenix metro area has a number of factors that contribute to ozone pollution, according to JoAnna Strother, senior director of advocacy for the American Lung Association based in Arizona.
“Ozone is made by sunlight and heat and also mixed with volatile organic compounds … Those can come from a variety of sources, especially the transportation sector, that’s one of the No. 1 contributing sources,” Strother said.
“When those things come together in the presence of heat and sunlight, it forms ozone … That air gets trapped down into the Valley, with warmer air on top of cool air, air becomes stagnant and will stick around the Valley.”
The Environmental Protection Agency defines particle pollution as a mixture of solid and liquid droplets suspended in the air such as dust, dirt, soot or smoke. Once inhaled, these particles can affect the lungs and heart and cause serious health effects.
According to the report, wildfires in the West are a major contributing factor to the increasingly unhealthy levels of particle pollution.
“Wildfires are where you get the peaks, especially when we look at short-term particle pollution and those wildfire seasons that’s when we tend to see … an increase in our annual particle levels,” Strother said.
Who is affected by ozone and particle pollution?
About 120 million people in the U.S. live in counties with at least one failing grade for ozone or particle pollution, and 64 million of those, or 54%, are people of color, according to the report.
“Research has shown that people of color are more likely to be exposed to air pollution and more likely to suffer harm to their health from air pollution than white people. Much of this inequity can be traced to the long history of systemic racism in the United States,” the report said. “Practices such as redlining, the discriminatory outlining of so-called ‘riskier’ neighborhoods by mortgage lenders, institutionalized residential segregation in the 20th century, impairing the ability of many people of color to build wealth and limiting their mobility and political power.”
The Phoenix metro area has a population of almost 5 million people, including 2.3 million people of color, according to the report and census data.
“We know that our communities of color are more at risk and many times it’s because they’re located next to polluting sources, so next to freeways, highways, heavily traveled areas, but also next to polluting sources – could be oil and gas extractions,” Strother said.
This leads to people of color being more likely than white people to live with one or more chronic conditions that are made worse by air pollution, such as asthma, diabetes and heart disease.
“Communities of color are disproportionately affected, and their health is consistently put at risk, and so communities of color are statistically more likely to live closer to waste processing plants and pollution sites, and as a result their health is severely impacted,” said Yara Marin, the interior West regional director at Vote Solar, which fights for clean energy.
Marin, who grew up in Phoenix, lives here and has family here, said she is devastated to see it ranked as one of the most polluted cities in the country.
Marin said she has health issues and suffers from asthma.
“Growing up I was impacted with asthma, and no one really ever questioned. A lot of my friends and colleagues are diagnosed with asthma or other respiratory issues, and no one really questioned why that was, and it wasn’t until I got older that I realized that it came based on our environment, the communities that we grew up in because we live closer to the processing plants,” Marin said.
According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, air pollution can worsen asthma symptoms.
Ozone triggers asthma symptoms because it is irritating to the lungs and airways and can lead to the need for more doses of asthma drugs and emergency treatment, according to the association.
“Ozone can reduce lung function … (and) can make it more difficult for you to breathe deeply,” the AAFA’s website says.
Airborne particles can also trigger asthma, and people with the condition are at a greater risk of breathing in small particles, which can make it worse, according to the AAFA.
Marin said it’s important to alert communities of color that living near polluting sites impacts their health and quality of life.
“It’s made me realize how important it is to ensure that we’re not only advocating and educating the communities but that we’re also trying to find solutions to help transition these communities away from gas and fossil fuels and into clean energy and just cleaner tech, cleaner communities in general,” Marin said.
Erandi Treviño, the Texas field coordinator for Moms Clean Air Force, an advocacy organization fighting against air pollution, also grew up around pollution and has chronic health issues – as do her mother and nieces.
“It’s not going to take just one single solution, it’s going to take many solutions at the same time or at least a lot of different approaches at the same time,” Treviño said. “Realistically everybody needs to take ownership.”
Strother said the problem needs to be solved at the federal and state level.
“We’re really calling on the Biden administration to set higher standards for ozone and particulate matter. We know that those standards need to meet health measures and be more protective,” Strother said. “We also have those same tasks within the state that we start cleaning up pollution sites. We know where these low-income communities are located so that we can better protect their health because again, they’re the ones most impacted.”