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Las Vegas gets ‘F’ for air quality; county disputes bad grade

Updated April 19, 2023 - 7:09 pm

Blame it in part on western wildfires, but the Las Vegas metropolitan area received “F” grades for air quality in a new report by the American Lung Association.

Las Vegas ranked 31st worst for short-term particle pollution out of 223 U.S. metropolitan areas, with 5.5 days of unhealthy spikes — its highest number ever — earning it a failing grade, according to the annual report based on Environmental Protection Agency data from 2019 through 2021.

Among the culprits are climate events — extreme heat, prolonged drought, heavy dust storms and wildfires — all of which increase air pollution, said Melissa Ramos, senior manager of clean air advocacy for the lung association.

“Wildfires continue to blow smoke hundreds of miles away … and we see that especially here in Southern Nevada,” Ramos said in an interview on Tuesday.

The smoke creates haze along with dangerous spikes in particle pollution, which contribute to difficulty breathing, coughing and lung inflammation, she said. Unlike larger pollutants, which are sneezed or coughed out, these particles can get trapped in lung tissue and the bloodstream.

“Particle pollution in particular has been linked to premature death and lung cancer,” Ramos said.

County faults report

The Clark County Department of Environment & Sustainability took exception to the failing grades for the greater Las Vegas area, noting that the county air quality meets EPA standards for five of six pollutants.

“While Clark County is not without air quality challenges, our data shows our community enjoys good air quality for the majority of the year,” Kevin MacDonald, the department’s public information administrator, said in an email.

The county isn’t meeting standards for ozone, the main component of smog, he said.

Exposure to high ozone levels, which are often seen across the country during hot summer months, can damage the tissue of the respiratory tract.

Long-term exposure can lead to the development of asthma in children and COPD in adults, while increasing the risk of metabolic disorders such as diabetes and the likelihood of developmental harm to fetuses, the report states.

Ozone poses a challenge in Clark County, MacDonald acknowledged, noting that in addition to the 1.4 million gas-powered vehicles in the county that produce ozone-forming emissions, ozone-forming pollutants from Southern California, Asia and other regions drift to the area.

The lung association report showed the Las Vegas area improving in terms of ozone, ranking it 15th worst in the country for high ozone days with 16.2 days, earning it an “F” grade. Last year, it ranked 11th worst.

The association praised Nevada for legislation aimed at accelerating the adoption of medium and heavy-duty zero-emission vehicles.

“This is going to not only reduce emissions from the most polluting vehicles on the road, but it’s also going to bring significant public health benefits,” Ramos said about Assembly Bill 184.

On an individual basis, individuals can protect their health by staying indoors as much as possible on poor air quality days and considering buying an air purifier for their home, she said. To reduce pollution, they can walk, bike and car pool, when possible.

Aloha, Hawaii

In the report, Bakersfield, Calif., topped the list of U.S. cities most polluted by short-term particle pollution, followed by Fresno-Madera-Hanford, California. The Reno-Carson City-Fernley area ranked fifth worst.

Amarillo-Pampa-Borger, Texas topped the list for cleanest U.S. cities for short-term particle pollution, followed by Asheville-Marion-Brevard, N.C.

Bakerfield also topped the list of cities most polluted by year-round particle pollution, followed by Visalia, Calif.. Las Vegas ranked 30th in this category, and Reno 35th.

Urban Honolulu topped the last of cleanest cities for year-round particle pollution, followed by the Kahului-Wailuku-Lahaina area in Hawaii.

California’s Los Angeles-Long Beach area topped the list of most ozone-polluted cities, followed by Visalia, Calif.. Reno ranked 19th.

The cleanest U.S. city for ozone air pollution was New York’s Albany-Schenectady area, followed by North Carolina’s Asheville-Marion-Brevard area, according to the report.

Contact Mary Hynes at mhynes@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0336. Follow @MaryHynes1 on Twitter.

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