AUSTIN, TEXAS– The Austin-Round Rock-Georgetown metro area, home to 2.2 million people, suffered through 103 days of elevated air pollution in 2020, according to a new report from Environment Texas Research & Policy Center, Frontier Group and TexPIRG Education Fund. Statistics from 2020 represent the most recent data available. Air pollution causes 17,000 deaths every year in Texas.
“Even one day of breathing in polluted air has negative consequences for our health,” said Luke Metzger, Executive Director of Environment Texas. “103 days is unacceptable and we need to do more to deliver cleaner air for our communities.”
In the report, Trouble in the Air: Millions of Americans Breathed Polluted Air in 2020, researchers reviewed Environmental Protection Agency air pollution records from across the country. The report focuses on ground-level ozone and fine particulate pollution, which are harmful pollutants that come primarily from burning fossil fuels such as coal, diesel, gasoline, methane gas and from wildfires. The report estimates the number of days of degraded air quality experienced in 2020 by people living across the U.S. based on the number of days when air quality monitors for PM2.5 or ozone reported an AQI of 51 or higher. In areas that contain more than one monitoring location, days in which half or more of the monitoring locations in the area reported an air quality problem were included in the tally of days with degraded air quality.
The Austin area had 22 days of elevated levels of ozone and 84 days of elevated levels of small particulate matter, for a total of 103 days with one and/or the other. Brownsville had 129 days, El Paso 126, Dallas 72, Houston 96, and San Antonio 101 days. While Houston had fewer days with greater than 50% of monitors with elevated pollution, the region has overall worse air quality, including much higher peaks of pollution.
The Austin tally likely undercounts the number of days with elevated levels of ozone. The “CAMS 3” ozone monitor, previously located at Murchison Middle School, is the region’s primary ozone monitor, but was offline for the majority of the year due to construction at the school. As three complete years of data are needed from a monitor to determine whether a region is in “attainment” with the Clean Air Act. CAMS 3 data won’t be used until the spring of 2024. Instead, the area’s other monitor (CAMS 38), which according to the Capital Area Council of Governments, “historically records lower concentrations” will be used, likely helping Austin stay in attainment even if air quality doesn’t improve.
While the report finds that air pollution problems persist, the solutions for cleaning our air are readily achievable. The report recommends that policymakers increase funding for walking, biking and transit (which could be done by shifting funds away from widening I35), electrify our buildings, equipment and transportation; transition to clean renewable energy; and strengthen federal air quality standards.
“Air pollution is a significant threat to public health in El Paso and in many other parts of Texas,” said Dr. Lisa Doggett, president of Texas Physicians for Social Responsibility. “Not only does air pollution contribute to climate change, but it increases rates of respiratory disease, heart attacks, pregnancy loss, and even neurologic conditions and mental health problems. Air pollution also increases the risk of death among those who are infected with COVID-19. We need to take immediate action to shift away from fossil fuels and transition to renewable energy, to protect the health of our families and communities, as well as our planet.”
Congress is poised to pass a bipartisan infrastructure bill that will jumpstart cleaner transportation projects, including $7.5 billion for electric vehicle charging stations. Congress is also considering the Build Back Better Act, which could create even larger investments in climate solutions that can also clean our air.
“Our future can truly be better and healthier if we clean up our air,” Metzger said. “Zeroing out pollution from all aspects of our lives will protect our lungs and our climate at the same time.”
Environment Texas Research & Policy Center is a 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to protecting our air, water and open spaces. We work to protect the places we love, advance the environmental values we share, and win real results for our environment.
TexPIRG Education Fund is an independent, non-partisan group that works for consumers and the public interest. Through research, public education and outreach, we serve as counterweights to the influence of powerful special interests that threaten our health, safety or well-being.
Frontier Group is a nonpartisan research and policy development center, providing information and ideas to help build a cleaner, healthier and more democratic America.