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WJLA.com: Northern Virginia is 6th Smoggiest Place in the U.S.: Report Print

BY John Metcalfe

Created:  September 21, 2011, 2:11 PM

The D.C. area is right up with top smog offenders like Los Angeles and Houston, says Environment Virginia. Here, smog blankets the National Mall in 2008. (Patrick Rasenberg)

Denizens of pretty-much-perfect Northern Virginia might be alarmed to hear that their wonderland of neatly trimmed lawns and cupcake-slinging food trucks lies under a pall of nastiness. Thanks in large part to all the drivers on the Beltway, above D.C. hovers a thick, choking layer of smog that made nearly a month's worth of days this summer hazardous to breathe in.

That's according to a new report by Environment Virginia, whose members had a sit down in Arlington today to share their findings with Congressman Jim Moran and Virginia Delegate Patrick Hope. The report puts U.S. cities in order of how many poor air-quality days they had in 2010 and 2011, and Arlington, Fairfax, Alexandria and other Virginia burbs (along with D.C.... and Baltimore!) are right up there with top smog offenders like Los Angeles and Atlanta.

The environmental group uses a slightly unorthodox methodology. While the EPA's smog standards state that ozone levels are potentially dangerous when they exceed 75 parts per billion, Environment Virginia counted days when the levels ranged above 60 ppb, because that's "a level that scientists agree is more protective of public health," the group says. Using that definition, the group found that D.C.-area residents breathed in dangerous amounts of pollution on 33 days last year and 28 days this summer. (The heat wave was a particularly polluted time.) That's not great because, as the EPA says:

Breathing ozone can trigger a variety of health problems including chest pain, coughing, throat irritation, and congestion. It can worsen bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma. "Bad" ozone also can reduce lung function and inflame the linings of the lungs. Repeated exposure may permanently scar lung tissue.

Children and the elderly are particularly affected by smog. Because many of these days fell just below the EPA's current 75 ppb standard, sensitive people would not have known about the foulness in the air from the standard National Weather Service alerts. The report comes just weeks after President Obama decided to delay tightening the nation's smog standards in light of stiff Republican opposition. Here are some specific findings:

• "National rankings of the smoggiest metropolitan areas across the country in 2011, through August 21: The areas of Los Angeles-Long Beach-Riverside, CA; Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Gainesville, GA-AL; Fresno-Madera, CA; Washington-Baltimore-Northern Virginia, DC-MD-VA-WV; and New York-Newark-Bridgeport, NY-NJ-CT-PA are the top five areas with the most smog days so far this summer, through August 21, 2011."

• "The top five smoggiest metropolitan areas in the country in 2010 were in California. Riverside-San Bernardino, CA ranked as the smoggiest metropolitan area in the country with 110 smog days – meaning that the area, home to more than 3 million residents, had unhealthy air on one out of three days in 2010. Baltimore, MD; Washington, DC-MD-VA-WV; Philadelphia, PA-NJ; Houston, TX; and Atlanta, GA made up the rest of the top-ten smoggiest metropolitan areas list for 2010.

• "Of large metropolitan areas, or those with populations over 1 million people, Riverside-San Bernardino, California suffered the worst smog pollution in 2010 by far, with 41 more days than the area in second place: Los Angeles-Long Beach, CA. The top five continue with Baltimore, MD; Washington, DC-VA-MD-WV; and Philadelphia, PA-NJ. Two metropolitan areas in each of the following states were among the top 20 smoggiest large areas for 2010: New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas."