Gwynne Ann Unruh is an award-winning reporter formerly of the Alamosa Valley Courier, an independent paper in southern Colorado. She covers the environment for The Paper.

Albuquerque’s Air Quality report card isn’t one you could take home and proudly display to Mom and Dad. The most recent Lung Association’s “State of the Air” annual air quality “report card” tracks and grades Americans’ exposure to unhealthy levels of smog, soot and short-term spikes in particle pollution. Exposure to unhealthful levels of ozone or particle pollution can be deadly and the air quality in Albuquerque is getting worse.

The report analyzed particle pollution through average annual particle pollution levels and short-term spikes in particle pollution. Both ozone and particle pollution are dangerous to public health and can increase the risk of premature death and other serious health effects such as lung cancer, asthma attacks, cardiovascular damage and developmental and reproductive harm.

Albuquerque “State of the Air” report findings found mixed rankings for the nation’s most widespread air pollutants. The city ranked 22nd for high ozone days out of 226 metropolitan areas, 99th for 24-hour particle pollution out of 221 metropolitan areas and 88th for annual particle pollution out of 202 metropolitan areas.

Compared to the 2021 report, Albuquerque experienced more unhealthy days of high ozone contaminants than the previous year. Last year it ranked 29th of the most polluted cities with unhealthy ozone days.

Albuquerque residents are breathing unhealthy air driven by climate change, potentially placing their health and lives at risk. In addition to challenges here in Albuquerque, the “State of the Air” report highlights that more Americans are living with unhealthy air and we are heading in the wrong direction when it comes to protecting public health.

Senior Director of Advocacy for the Lung Association in New Mexico, JoAnna Strother, says climate change continues to be a major factor in endangering air quality, but the state is doing well working to combat the problem.     

For example, the Environmental Improvement Board recently adopted the “ozone precursor rule,” reducing ozone pollution in areas where fossil fuel operations elevate it to unsafe levels. The new rule will make New Mexico a leader in protecting public health and the environment from ozone pollutants in the nation.

Monitoring devices have shown that ozone precursors have increased at oil and gas sites in recent years and must be reduced. The new ozone rule is set to be finalized on May 26 and, once it is published in the New Mexico Register, it will take effect in 30 days.

“We want to recognize New Mexico as being a great leader recently on putting some stricter rules in place on oil and gas emissions,” Strother said. “Now we know they are coming into the clean cars rules-making process as well which will definitely clean up some of New Mexico’s air pollution burden.”    

According to Strother, ozone especially harms children, older adults and those with asthma and other lung diseases. “When older adults or children with asthma breathe ozone-polluted air, too often they end up in the doctor’s office, the hospital, or the emergency room. Ozone can even shorten life itself.” 

The report said ozone levels increased in most cities nationwide, in large part due to the record-breaking global heat. Warmer temperatures brought by climate change make ozone more likely to form and harder to clean up.

Particle pollution is made of soot or tiny particles that come from coal-fired power plants, diesel emissions, wildfires and wood-burning devices. These particles are so small that they can lodge deep in the lungs and trigger asthma attacks, heart attacks and strokes and can be lethal, Strother explained. “Year-round particle pollution levels have dropped thanks to the cleanup of coal-fired power plants and the retirement of old, dirty diesel engines.”

The findings in “State of the Air” reflect some of the successes of the Clean Air Act. In recent years, however, the findings of the report have added to the evidence that a changing climate is making it harder to protect human health. Of the three years covered by “State of the Air,” 2022 ranked globally among the seven hottest years on record.

The 2022 report found that despite decades of progress on cleaning up sources of air pollution, more than 40% of Americans—over 137 million people—are living in places with failing grades for unhealthy levels of particle pollution or ozone. That’s 2.1 million more people breathing unhealthy air compared to last year’s report. Nearly 9 million more people were impacted by daily spikes in deadly particle pollution than reported last year.

During the three-year period examined by the report, Americans experienced more days of “very unhealthy” and “hazardous” air quality than ever before in the two-decade history of the report.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is considering strengthening the national limits on particle pollution. By making the standards as strong as what the scientific research shows is needed to protect the health, the whole country could see health benefits. To help make this happen, the Lung Association is petitioning the EPA to set stronger standards for air quality. “Thanks to the work of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the nation’s air is much cleaner than it was before the Clean Air Act became law. However, communities across the country are still breathing harmful levels of particulate matter. The current National Ambient Air Quality Standards for particulate matter are too weak to fully protect people’s health,” their petition states.

They are also asking the EPA to prioritize the health of families by proposing and finalizing National Ambient Air Quality Standards for Particulate Matter that match what the science shows is necessary: 8 micrograms per cubic meter for the annual standard and 25 micrograms per cubic meter for the 24-hour standard. The EPA currently has in place an annual particle pollution standard of 15 micrograms per cubic meter and a daily (24-hour) standard of 35 micrograms per cubic meter.

The Lung Association states that these protective levels are necessary to bring about health benefits nationwide and drive the cleanup of polluting sources, especially those that have long disproportionately burdened communities of color. “Strengthening both the 24-hour and annual standards is important for achieving President Biden’s environmental justice goals.”

You can sign their petition here.