Richmond’s health at risk with 56 dirty air days in 2015

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Environment Virginia Research and Policy Center

Richmond – Air pollution remains a major threat to our health, according to a new report from Environment Virginia Research & Policy Center, Our Health at Risk: Why Are Millions of Americans Still Breathing Unhealthy Air? In 2015, people here in Richmond experienced 56 unhealthy air pollution days, increasing the risk of premature death, asthma attacks and other adverse health impacts. The DC, Arlington, and Alexandria metro area had an alarming 99 such days.

Even one day with unhealthy air is too many,” said Elly Boehmer, Campaign Organizer with Environment Virginia. “Burning dirty fuels like coal, oil and gas threatens our health. It’s time to shift to 100 percent clean, renewable energy.”

The report comes during National Public Health Week, a celebration of efforts to tackle the underlying causes of disease – like air pollution – and ensure that all people have a chance to live long and healthy lives.

Although our air is less polluted than it was 30 years ago, dirty air is still a major health problem. Despite that fact, President Trump is taking an axe to important programs that could help clean up our air. In just the last month, the Trump Administration has:

  • Instructed the EPA to rewrite the Clean Power Plan, the largest step the United States has ever taken to cut dangerous global warming pollution;
  • Proposed to cut the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency by 31 percent, a “get out of jail free card” for polluters;
  • Instructed the Environmental Protection Agency to roll back federal clean cars standards that were supposed to prevent 6 billion metric tons of global warming pollution; and
  • Told the Department of Interior to rewrite air pollution regulations for oil and gas drilling.

These actions will have significant health impacts. Blocking the Clean Power Plan alone will slow progress in cleaning our air – leading to 3,600 additional premature deaths, 90,000 more asthma attacks in children, and 300,000 more missed work and school days by 2030.

“Burning fossil fuels and using gasoline for transportation release CO2, other greenhouse gases and air pollution into the air. Air pollution holds greenhouse gases close to the ground where we live,” said Dr. Janet Eddy who practices family medicine at Bon Secours- Richmond Community Hospital. “If you add heat to that mixture (think hot summers and climate change), you get ozone, which at ground level burns the lungs and causes people with asthma and emphysema to feel like they’re strangling. It can also cause burning and short-windedness in people without lung problems.”

“Going backwards on clean air is reckless and wrong,” said Boehmer. “We should be doing more to clean up pollution and develop clean energy, not less.”

Our Health at Risk reviews EPA records of air pollution levels across the country, focusing on smog and soot – dangerous pollutants that come from burning dirty fuels like coal, oil and natural gas. Key findings include:

  • People in Richmond experienced 56 days with elevated smog pollution and 96 days with elevated soot pollution in 2015.
  • Richmond ranked 99th in the nation for worst smog pollution in 2015, and 97th for soot. Just over 90 miles north, the Washington-Arlington-Alexandria metro area ranked 35th for smog pollution in 2015 and 27th for soot.
  • Across Virginia, ten cities had unhealthy levels of air pollution on at least twenty of days during 2015, including Bristol, Roanoke, Blacksburg, Virginia Beach, Alexandria and Arlington.

Many Virginians may be exposed to air pollution even more severe than described here because they live in local pollution “hotspots,” such as near freeways, airports and industrial facilities – facing greater health impacts. For example, people who live near highly traveled roads are at increased risk of developing lung cancer, and at greater risk of death from stroke, lung disease and heart disease.

“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. “Elevated levels of air pollution – even levels the federal government says are safe for most people – hurt our health.”

“And it’s not just soot and smog,” said Boehmer. “We also have to worry about global warming pollution. Warming is extending the smog season across more of the year, and driving up smog levels on hot days. Along with drought, warming is also making wildfires more frequent and intense – causing additional pollution that can travel hundreds of miles.”

Speakers urged Virginia’s elected leaders to stand up to attempts to weaken the Clean Air Act, to maintain the strength of the nation’s Clean Car Standards, and to accelerate our transition to clean energy.

“Pollution has for too long made the difference in whether someone with asthma will be able to take their dream job and made the difference in whether kids could go outside and be active or have to stay inside, ” noted Cassandra Johnson, a Virginia native and VCU student who suffers from asthma. “We need our representatives to move forward with curbing pollution which for the millions of people like me, could make all the difference. In 2010 alone, these protections saved 160,000 lives, prevented 130,000 heart attacks and avoided 41,000 hospital admissions across America.”

“In the face of reckless and dangerous actions from the Trump Administration on clean air, Senators Kaine and Warner must stand up for our health,” said Boehmer. “We urge our senators to defend clean air safeguards and clean cars standards so that dirty air days can become a thing of the past.”


Environment Virginia Research & Policy Center is a 501(c)(3) organization. We are 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. For more information, visit