In releasing its 2018 State of the Air report, the American Lung Association calls out Alaska as having “some of the worst air quality in the nation.” The Lung Association cites Fairbanks as having the worst year-round particulate pollution of any city, and lists Anchorage as the 14th-most polluted city for short-term particulates. So what does this actually mean for Alaskans’ health? It turns out the rankings aren’t as simple as they first appear.
The Lung Association states that Fairbanks jumped from 17th most-polluted city (by particulates) in 2017 to number one in 2018. That’s not because pollution increased, but because an additional pollution monitor began giving more accurate data. Fairbanks’ air quality problems are nothing new; for years, air quality monitors have indicated that air quality is often worse than China’s most polluted cities. But far from regressing, Fairbanks is making significant progress to clean up the air.
According to Ashley Peltier, who represents the Lung Association in Alaska, “Fairbanks North Star Borough Mayor Karl Kassel has been spearheading public education on the health dangers of PM2.5 [one type of particulate pollution] with the North Pole and Fairbanks City Mayors in support. They’ve held community-wide meetings on the impact of poor wood-burning practices, promoting a woodstove exchange program, and have been offering proper wood burning and wood storage education.” Borough voters have repeatedly rejected ballot propositions that would have blocked air quality improvements. Peltier added, “The FNSB has required removal of inefficient wood burning devices at the conveyance of properties, prohibited wood burning during stage one and two alerts, and is requiring all wood sellers to register as certified dry wood sellers,” meaning that Fairbanks could come into attainment with federal air quality standards as early as 2019.
In contrast to Fairbanks, Anchorage isn’t generally considered to be a particularly polluted city. In contrast, many former residents of large, polluted cities cite our air quality as an attractive attribute of living here. It turns out that popular perception is accurate. I asked the Lung Association for clarification about their citing of Anchorage as having bad air quality, and Peltier explained, “Anchorage does not actually have a PM2.5 attainment problem, Mat-Su Borough does, specifically in the Butte area. However, the US Census Bureau includes the Mat-Su Borough in the Anchorage census area, therefore, we label Mat-Su as Anchorage in the report.” That’s a curious choice, since pretty much every Alaskan would consider the Butte and Anchorage to be very different places on multiple levels, air quality perhaps being the least among them.
Nonetheless, PM2.5 particulate pollution is a big deal for Butte residents, and those of us in Anchorage are lucky not to have to worry about it. The term “PM2.5” signifies particulates 30 times smaller than a human hair. They are so small that they lodge in one’s lungs and dramatically increase the risk of cardiac disease. In most large cities, vehicles and coal-fired power plants are primary emitters of PM2.5. In Alaska, outdated, inefficient wood stoves are the primary source of such pollution.
It’s worth putting all of this in context. Fairbanks has a very serious air pollution problem that local residents, multiple local governments, and the EPA are working diligently to fix. Anchorage really doesn’t have any similar type of problem, though there are localized problems in the Valley. Compare us to Los Angeles or Bakersfield, both of which are at or near the top of both ground level ozone and short term PM2.5 pollution counts. Pretty much every large, sprawling metropolis in America has dangerous levels of ground level ozone much higher than those in Alaska, and any of us who have visited Atlanta, DC, New York, LA, or the Central Valley during bad air days have felt it in our lungs. Both ground level ozone and particulate pollution levels have fallen drastically over the last half-century as a result of the Clean Air Act and Clean Air Act amendments. You might have noticed the economy continued to grow during most of this period, and fact the economy has grown more slowly or contracted during periods when presidential administrations such as George W. Bush’s attempted to subvert the Clean Air Act.
As most local leaders in Fairbanks and Anchorage have recognized, there’s no trade off between clean air and a healthy economy. In contrast, people demand to live in places with healthy air. They also demand recreational infrastructure so it’s safe and convenient to get around on foot or by bicycle, which are as important as air quality when it comes to preventing cardiac disease. After all, most affluent, educated people have a choice of where to settle down, and why would we live somewhere with levels of particulate or ground level ozone pollution that will kill us prematurely?