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Reno makes worst air quality list in annual report card


Reno ranks among the top 20 communities in the U.S. for worst air quality. More days of unhealthy particle pollution levels and high ozone pollution than much of the rest of the nation put Reno on the list. The ranking is part of the American Lung Association’s (ALA) annual “State of the Air” report card, released this month. 

The ALA’s ranking tied Reno, Carson City and Fernley together and listed the region 19th for the nation’s worst ozone pollution and 18th for average year-round particle pollution. The northern Nevada region jumped to sixth for short-term particle pollution. It scored an F in all three categories. 

Particle pollution is caused by microscopic solid and liquid particles in the air, such as dust, acid, metals, pollen, ash, mold or chemicals. Long-term exposure to particle pollution for children can lead to impaired development and respiratory problems. For adults, it can lead to cardiovascular and lung diseases, including lung cancer, and increased risk for impaired cognitive function, anxiety, depression and diabetes. 

Ozone, when high in the Earth’s atmosphere, has a protective function, but it can harm people and plants at the ground level. Ground-level ozone forms when sunlight and heat create a chemical reaction between volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides. Exposure to ozone pollution can damage airways and cause damage to organs and tissues throughout the body.

Francisco Vega, the division director of air quality for Northern Nevada Public Health, said he’s appreciative of the ALA’s work to protect air quality and public health, and the report cards are a data-based way to look at local air quality. He said the data reflects what many in the region already know: the smoke from wildfires has a negative impact on Reno’s air quality.

“[It’s] wildfires—some of the worst wildfires ever recorded—which is driving some of that information.” 

“It’s not a grade or reflection of local efforts to protect air quality and public health,” Vega said. “[It’s] wildfires—some of the worst wildfires ever recorded—which is driving some of that information.” 

ALA researchers agreed.

“Wildfires in the western United States and Canada remain the major contributing factor to the increasing number of days and places with unhealthy levels of particle pollution in recent years,” the report states. “Wildfires are also continuing to increase the severity of pollution, resulting in the highest number of days designated as either purple or maroon (135 and 79 days, respectively). These are the levels on the Air Quality Index that carry the strongest health warnings.”

Charts included in the report reflect some of the recent wildfire effects on northern Nevada, including increases in the number of days with high small particle pollution following the 2013 Rim Fire, the 2020 Creek and August Complex fires, and the 2021 Dixie and Caldor fires

Vega said wildfires also cause some of the increased ozone pollution.

ALA Air Quality Report chart 2024
ALA Air Quality Report chart 2024.

“We try to think about it a little bit deeper,” Vega said. “We recognize wildfires are impacting air quality negatively regularly. It’s not the only cause. Even [last] year, there was a day in July with bright blue skies, and everything was clear, and we had high ozone levels.”

Vega said emissions from the transportation sector and from the heating and cooling of buildings also contribute to higher particle and ozone pollution in the region.

“It’s well documented that the more asphalt, the more concrete that you have it creates this urban heat island effect, hotter than if it’s just vegetation,” he said. “Planting of trees creates shade, especially in multimodal areas. We try to work with both the city and county to promote urban forestry and address some of these urban health island effects.”

What can be done

The City of Reno this year announced a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to plant trees near the airport to reduce the heat island created by the runways. Multiple other tree-planting projects are taking place or planned in the area, some through Reno ReLeaf and others in partnership with local nonprofits such as the Reno Gleaning Project.  

Vega said there are a number of ways residents can help improve local air quality—aside from not starting wildfires.

“When you have different options for specific trips, like to the grocery store, walk, take public transportation or consider carpooling,” he said. “Anything that you can do to minimize vehicle miles traveled helps compress ozone pollution.”

He also suggested considering electric vehicles when planning a vehicle purchase. The Environmental Protection Agency reports that even accounting for electricity emissions to charge an EV, “research shows that an EV is typically responsible for lower levels of greenhouse gases (GHGs) than an average new gasoline car. To the extent that more renewable energy sources like wind and solar are used to generate electricity, the total GHGs associated with EVs could be even lower.”

In the winter, Vega said following the burn code can also keep the region in check for ozone and particle pollution. The code considers pollution levels as measured at air quality stations throughout the region along with weather conditions such as temperature and wind speed and direction. Residents can keep tabs on air quality conditions at OurCleanAir.com.

The full ALA State of the Air report and rankings are available at https://www.lung.org/research/sota. Visit here to access Washoe County’s report card.

Kristen Hackbarth
Kristen Hackbarth
Kristen Hackbarth is a freelance editor and communications professional with more than 20 years’ experience working in marketing, public relations and communications in northern Nevada. Kristen graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno with a degree in photography and minor in journalism and has a Master of Science in Management and Leadership. She also serves as director of communications for Nevada Cancer Coalition, a statewide nonprofit. Though she now lives in Atlanta, she is a Nevadan for life and uses her three-hour time advantage to get a jump on the morning’s news.




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