Trouble in the Air Report: NJ Public Health At Risk Across State from Dirty Air Days

Media Contacts

Average of 91 Unhealthy Air Days Logged Per Metro Area in 2016 from Ozone/PM 2.5

Environment New Jersey

Trenton, NJ – As the Trump administration considers weakening federal air quality and global warming emissions standards, air pollution remains a huge threat to New Jersey’s public health. According to a new report by Environment New Jersey Research & Policy Center, metropolitan areas across the state experienced an average of 91 days of degraded air quality in 2016, or roughly three months, increasing the risk of premature death, asthma attacks and other adverse health impacts.

“All New Jerseyans should be able to breathe clean air. Even one day with polluted air is too many,” said Doug O’Malley, Environment New Jersey Research & Policy Center Director. “To drastically reduce our dirty air days, we need to strengthen existing air quality protections and reduce global warming pollution. We shouldn’t accept bad air pollution, especially in the summer, as the status quo. Clearly, we need to fight against the Trump administration rollbacks on ozone standards and fuel efficiency standards. But we also need to stop digging the hole deeper on carbon pollution and smog-forming emissions here in New Jersey. We need to move forward on electric cars and buses and a strong RGGI emissions cap at the state level, and we need Gov. Murphy to intervene to put the brakes on the massive proposed Meadowlands gas power plant that will pollute our air for a generation.”

For the report, Trouble in the Air: Millions of Americans Breathe Polluted Air, Environment New Jersey Research & Policy Center, Frontier Group and NJPIRG Law & Policy Center reviewed Environmental Protection Agency records of air pollution levels across the country, focusing on smog and particulate pollution – harmful pollutants that come from burning fossil fuels such as coal, diesel, gasoline and natural gas.

“There’s no safe level of exposure to smog and particulate pollution,” said Elizabeth Ridlington, Policy Analyst with Frontier Group and co-author of the report. “Even low levels of smog and particulate pollution are bad for health and can increase deaths.”

These troubling findings come at a time when the Trump administration prepares to weaken the federal clean car standards, a critical program to cut global warming emissions and increase fuel efficiency. This comes on the heels of the announcement by former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt that the agency will review the federal ozone standard — a standard he sued to stop when he was Oklahoma’s attorney general.

The report’s authors called on the federal government to strengthen, not weaken, the clean car standards and continue to allow states to adopt stronger vehicle pollution standards. The authors also called on EPA to strengthen ozone and particulate pollution standards.

“To protect our health, we must keep cutting smog, particulate pollution and global warming emissions,” said O’Malley. “We must accelerate our progress, not hit the brakes on effective programs like the federal clean car standards.”


Metropolitan Area or Rural County
PM 2.5
Ozone and/or PM 2.5

Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton, PA-NJ






Atlantic City-Hammonton, NJ






New York-Newark-Jersey City NY-NJ-PA






Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, PA-NJ-DE-MD






Trenton, NJ






Vineland-Bridgeton, NJ






New Jersey’s metropolitan areas hit an ignoble trinity by reaching the Top 10 list for bad air days for a multitude of pollutants, with rankings in the Top Ten Most Populated Areas with More Than 100 Days of Elevated Air Pollution in 2016, Ten Most Populated Metropolitan Areas with 31 to 100 Days of Elevated Air Pollution and the Ten Most Populated Metropolitan Areas With More than 100 Days of Particulate Pollution. Note that these are the number of days in 2016 in which 50 percent or more monitoring locations reported elevated ozone and/or PM2.5.

“Ozone alert days are endemic across the state, especially during the summer months. Heat waves essentially guarantee high levels of ozone – and they hit across the state. Every part of the state is impacted – North, Central and South Jersey,” said O’Malley.

The Trenton metropolitan region, the South Jersey/Philadelphia/Wilmington region, and even the more rural Delaware River Valley region all tallied more than 100 unhealthy air days, and were closely followed by the extended Atlantic City metropolitan region, South Jersey’s Vineland and Bridgeton area, and then the expansive Newark, Jersey City and New York region.

There is no documented safe level of exposure to these air pollutants. Even when smog levels are “good” or “moderate” as defined by EPA, a modest increase in smog pollution results in more premature deaths. The case is the same for particulate pollution. There is also active concern that the public health risk is not full stated by current federal air quality standards:

1)     Repeated exposure to unsafe levels of pollution over time increases the risk of health impacts but currently, the U.S. doesn’t have a long-term ozone standard.

2)     Averaging pollution data over eight hours, as is the case for the data used in this report, may mask short-term spikes in pollution that can damage health.

3)     People who live near sources of pollution like highways face higher levels of pollution – and greater health risks – than are captured by regional air pollution measurements.

The EPA collects data from the states, which manage a network of air pollution monitors across the country. We grouped that data by metropolitan area to get our results. We used one year of data from 2016, and we look at short-term measures for both ozone and particulate pollution. Then, we tallied the number of days where air pollution is above a certain threshold.   


Metropolitan Area

Number of Days in 2016 in which Half or More Monitoring Locations Reported Elevated Ozone and/or PM2.5


Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA



Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, PA-NJ-DE-MD



Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell, GA



Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale, AZ



Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA



Baltimore-Columbia-Towson, MD



Pittsburgh, PA



Sacramento—Roseville—Arden-Arcade, CA



Cincinnati, OH-KY-IN



Las Vegas-Henderson-Paradise, NV



Note: This count includes air pollution at or above the level the EPA labels “moderate” and indicates in yellow or worse in its Air Quality Index.

Mortality Impacts of Air Pollution:

In a 2017 study, researchers examined more than 22 million deaths in the Medicare population from 2000 to 2012 and found that a 10-parts-per-billion rise in smog pollution increased the daily mortality rate by 0.5 percent, regardless of how low pollution levels had been initially. In the same population, a small (10 μg/m3) increase in particulate pollution increased the daily death rate by 1.05 percent. The authors conclude that there is “no evidence of a threshold” below which smog or particulate pollution is safe.

A study of air pollution in Stockholm, Sweden, found that a policy that limited driving – and thus air pollution – in the central city reduced asthma attacks in children in subsequent years. The authors suggest that curbing air pollution can have significant long-term benefits.

Separately, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health have found that death rates for older Americans rise as air pollution increases – even when air pollution levels are below current national standards. The U.S. does not have an annual standard for smog, and the researchers suggest that the nation adopt one because of ozone’s long-term health impacts.

In short, there is strong evidence that U.S. air pollution standards are inadequate to protect public health, that exposure to even “moderate” levels of pollution is a serious public health concern, and that any incremental reduction in air pollution is likely to produce public health benefits.

This report estimates the number of days of degraded air quality experienced in 2016 by people living across the country, based on the number of days when air quality monitors reported an AQI of 51 or higher. This includes days that the EPA coded as moderate, unhealthy for sensitive groups, unhealthy, very unhealthy and hazardous. Air pollution data were grouped regionally, primarily by metropolitan and micropolitan areas. A relatively small number of rural counties also have air pollution monitors and were included.

Report Methodology Background: 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. People who live close to individual air pollution monitors may experience worse air pollution than indicated by this measure. However, counting every elevated reading from individual air pollution monitors runs the risk that a high reading from one or a handful of monitors may overstate the extent of the air pollution problem in a geographically dispersed metropolitan area.

This report presents the number of days with elevated smog pollution and with elevated particulate pollution, which present different types of threats to health. It also presents the number of days with elevated smog and/or particulate pollution, a measure of how often residents have to breathe polluted air.

Global Warming Impacts: One study estimates global warming will increase the number of air-pollution-related premature deaths if no measures are implemented to counteract global warming’s impact on air quality. (Premature deaths are deaths that occur before the average age of death for a given population cohort.) The analysis, published in 2017, estimates that 1,130 Americans may die prematurely in the year 2030 from smog pollution made worse by global warming, and that the number of premature smog-related deaths could rise to 8,810 annually by the year 2100. The study also estimates that particulate pollution worsened by global warming could cause 6,900 premature deaths in 2030 and 19,400 premature deaths in the year 2100.





Environment New Jersey Research & Policy Center is dedicated to protecting our air, water and open spaces. We investigate problems, craft solutions, educate the public and decision-makers, and help the public make their voices heard in local, state and national debates over the quality of our environment and our lives.