TRENTON – New Jerseyans endured fewer days with elevated levels of air pollution last year but still experienced close to seven weeks of unhealthy air, according to a new report issued Tuesday by environmental groups.

The report from Environment New Jersey, NJPIRG Law & Policy Center and Frontier Group said that even after lockdowns early in the pandemic that for a time slashed transportation use, metropolitan regions that include parts of New Jersey averaged 46 days of elevated ozone and fine particulate pollution.

That was down from an average of 72 days in 2018. There wasn’t a report for the 2019 data.

Environmentalists say there is no healthy level of pollution and that the temporary improvement in air quality early in the pandemic shows what is possible if the state and nation shift more quickly to electric vehicles.

“This data, reported by the EPA through a network of air monitors across the state in 2020, came despite the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns of last spring that virtually halted the daily commute of cars and trucks across the state,” said Hayley Berliner, clean energy advocate for Environment New Jersey. “This should concern every New Jerseyan because research increasingly suggests there’s no safe level of air pollution for us to breathe.”

Emma Horst-Martz, an advocate with the NJPIRG Law & Policy Center, said people drove their gas-powered vehicles less last year, but air quality issues didn’t disappear.

“One of the top sources of air pollution remained transportation,” Horst-Martz said. “As our driving has picked up again in 2021, you can be sure that our vehicle pollution has kept pace.”

Rob Laumbach, a professor at the Environmental & Occupational Health Science Institute at Rutgers University, said people shifted from mass transit to cars during the pandemic, a step in the wrong direction unless that pattern reverses.

“Recently, we’ve had issues with air quality here in New Jersey from the wildfires out in California, some of these hazy days,” Laumbach said. “But every day and throughout the year, we’re impacted by air pollution. Primarily here in New Jersey, the No. 1 sector or sources of air pollution in New Jersey are transportation.”

“This is nothing new,” said Pam Frank, chief executive officer of ChargEVC. “It is now sort of time to shift the spotlight from the establishment of facts, which we’ve done, to moving the political will to get us where we need to be as quickly as possible.”

The online version of the report includes a data visualization that illustrates the day-by-day air-quality reports, showing how there were fewer high-pollution days in the early months of the pandemic but that they returned by summer and fall.

According to the latest and 2018 reports, the number of days with instances of elevated ground-level ozone, fine particulate pollution or both was:

  • In the region that includes Mercer County: 55 days, from 82 days in 2018
  • In the region that includes Warren County and three counties in Pennsylvania: 51 days, from 99 days in 2018
  • In the region that includes Burlington, Camden, Gloucester and Salem counties and parts of Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland: 49 days, from 85 days in 2018
  • In the region that includes 12 New Jersey counties (Bergen, Essex, Hudson, Hunterdon, Middlesex, Monmouth, Morris, Ocean, Passaic, Somerset, Sussex, Union) and parts of New York and Pennsylvania: 47 days, from 71 days in 2018
  • In the region that includes Cumberland County: 46 days, from 60 days in 2018
  • In the region that includes Atlantic County: 29 days, from 38 days in 2018

Data wasn’t included in the report for the Cape May County region.

“The data in this report shows that people in large swaths of New Jersey spent one to two months in 2020 breathing in polluted air made unsafe by high levels of ozone or small particulate matter or both,” said Dr. Catherine Chen, a hospitalist and assistant professor at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.

“Days like that can send scores of people to physicians’ offices and emergency rooms across the state,” Chen said. “If you have severe enough pre-existing respiratory conditions or a high level of asthma, these days can land you in the hospital, ICU or possibly even lead to premature death.”

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Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker, D-Middlesex, said air quality is an issue for everyone in New Jersey.

“We’re the densest state in the country. And it’s not just our urban areas, which are certainly areas of extreme concern. But … it’s in our suburban areas, including the area that I represent that includes portions of the Trenton-Princeton corridor. It includes rural areas. And there is no area of air pollution that is a safe level. Air pollution has an enormous negative impact on people’s health.”

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.

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