Few things are as important as the quality of the air we breathe. Although a few Virginia regions have room for improvement, overall air quality in the Commonwealth has risen significantly in recent years.
Why is This Important?
Poor air quality causes increased deaths, especially among the very young and the very old. It reduces water quality, contributes to climate change, and damages forest resources, agriculture, buildings, and infrastructure. It also makes Virginia a less attractive place to live, do business in, or visit — factors that have consequences for the economy and the quality of life in the Commonwealth.
How is Virginia Doing?
Virginia’s air quality has markedly improved in recent years. For example, residents' average exposure to fine particulates -- particles of dust, soot, aerosols, and dust fine enough to be inhaled -- has decreased every year since 2003. For the third consecutive year, average exposure in Virginia (9.7 micrograms of fine particles per cubic meter) for 2012 was lower than the United States average (10.5), although the state ranks just 28th nationally. Among peer states, Maryland (10.9), Tennessee (10.4), and North Carolina (10.0) all had higher average exposure levels in 2012. Wyoming (5.1) again had the lowest.
Virginia is within the federal limits on air quality for all pollutants, with the following exceptions: Northern Virginia, which exceeds ozone limits (ozone concentrations greater than 75 parts per billion) and set limits for fine particulate matter. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began using a more stringent standard for ozone performance in 2008.
During the last decade, Virginia has significantly reduced the number of days when the ozone standard was exceeded, from 509 days per 3-year average for 1998-2000 to an average 52 days for 2009-2011. Northern Virginia, with an average of 29 days exceeding the ozone standard over the same period (2009-2011), continued to have the poorest air quality.
What Influences Air Quality?
Ground level ozone, the main ingredient in smog, is a colorless gas formed by the reaction of sunlight with vehicle emissions, gasoline fumes, solvent vapors, and power plant and industrial emissions. Particle pollution is made up of particles found in soot, dust, smoke and fumes caused by burning coal, oil, diesel, and other fuels. Global atmospheric circulation can cause emissions from other states and even other countries to affect Virginia.
Certain emissions are subject to reductions or caps mandated by state, federal, and international laws and obligations. Regulations requiring reductions in emission rates per unit of activity need to be tightened periodically to maintain air quality when economic activity increases. Regulations limiting air pollutant emissions to a certain amount per year can maintain air quality at a given level even during periods of growth.
What is the State's Role?
Air quality standards are established by the federal government and have been a significant factor in the steady improvements in air quality the U.S. has seen in recent decades. The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality is charged with enforcing these federal standards in the Commonwealth.
What Can Citizens Do?
Individuals and groups are strongly encouraged to be active participants in resource management. Reducing smog and particulate emissions through increased use of hybrid vehicles is just one place to start. To learn more about Virginia's environment, stewardship and public participation opportunities, and the partners engaged in conservation, please visit Virginia Naturally or the Virginia Conservation Network.
State rankings are ordered so that #1 is understood to be the best.
Data Definitions and Sources
Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, www.deq.virginia.gov/Programs/Air.aspx
United Health Foundation, America's Health Rankings
Data collected from the EPA
is used to estimate particulate exposure:
Population-weighted average exposure to fine particulates (2.5 micron and smaller) measured in micrograms of fine particulate per cubic meter.
"Air quality is improving in much of the U.S.," March 2010, Environmental News Network, www.enn.com/pollution/article/41116
See the Data Sources and Updates Calendar for a detailed list of the data resources used for indicator measures on Virginia Performs.