Lancaster is No. 1, and that’s bad: Comparing air quality in Central Pa. regions

Environment

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — “Lancaster ranked first in the state,” proclaimed one of the speakers at the press conference outside the state capitol. “Harrisburg ranked second.”

Well above Philly and Pittsburgh. Time to do a victory lap?

Hardly. The speaker, after all, was Kelly Flanagan of the PennEnvironment Research Center, commenting on local data within a national report released Tuesday. The report, Trouble in the Air, looked at local air quality for metropolitan areas throughout the United States. The key measures: number of days in 2020 with unhealthy levels of ozone or particulate matter, which can cause or aggravate respiratory illnesses.

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The headline rankings — Lancaster first, Harrisburg second, and so forth — were based on the total number of known days with unhealthy ozone and/or particular matter. But an apples-to-apples comparison is difficult, because the measuring stations in some cities weren’t working for significant portions of the year.

For example, Lancaster had 94 days with elevated levels of particulate matter, Harrisburg had 88 and Lebanon had 26. But equipment in Lancaster and Harrisburg was working all year, whereas Lebanon had data for only 172 of 366 days.

To compensate for that shortcoming, abc27 News calculated the number of days with elevated particulate matter as a percentage of the total days actually measured. Based on those measurements, here’s a ranking of areas of the Midstate compared to each other, and also compared to Pennsylvania’s most populous cities:

Area% of days with high particulate matter
Lancaster25.7%
Harrisburg-Carlisle24.0%
York-Hanover16.0%
Lebanon15.1%
Gettysburg10.2%
Philadelphia8.7%
Pittsburgh10.9%
Source: abc27 News analysis of Frontier Group/EPA data

That comparison likely still isn’t perfect, because for areas without complete days, the days measured might not be a representative sample of all days. For example, the days not measured in Lebanon might have been better or worse than those that were measured.

One thing that’s clear?

“We can no longer assume that poor air quality is just an urban problem,” Dr. Kelly Kuhns, Millersville University’s nursing department chair, said at the event on the capitol steps. “As this report demonstrates, we’re seeing increases in air pollution everywhere, including our suburban and rural areas.”

Another conclusion, according to people who consider the results a problem?

“We need to stop burning fossil fuels,” Dr. Gregory Foy, an analytical chemist and associate professor at York College of Pennsylvania, told abc27 News.

He said much of that depends on public policy, but individuals can contribute too.

“You can use public transportation more,” Foy said. “You can walk more. You can do all of those things to help reduce the amount of fossil fuels that we’re burning.”

Foy also said that although human behavior accounts for what’s happening in the atmosphere, you can’t entirely blame the people in one place or congratulate those in another for their local air quality readings.

“Air quality is kind of a mix of what we’re putting up into the atmosphere and then weather patterns,” he said.

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