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Poor air quality in Connecticut is bad for residents — but how much can be done?

Smog makes it difficult for individuals with breathing problems to be outside.
Fidel Gonzalez
Wikimedia Commons
Smog makes it difficult for individuals with breathing problems to be outside.

Air quality in Connecticut is impacting the health of residents. How much can legislators do to help?

WSHU’s Ebong Udoma spoke with CT Mirror’s Jan Ellen Spiegel to discuss her article, “Air quality can affect health. Climate change is worsening both,” as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.

WSHU: In your article, you give the example of 80-year-old Waterbury resident Sandra Rapp, to illustrate what the air quality is like in Connecticut and how it's affecting our health. Tell us about Sandra and how air quality is affecting her life.

JES: She has a bit of a medical history in that she worked in manufacturing for a number of years, she has also lived along highways in a couple of different cities in the state, New Haven and Waterbury, which are known to have a lot of automotive pollution. She developed a certain amount of asthma and had a run in with lung cancer that is now resolved. But because of those issues, the increased poor quality of air that we've seen, especially as climate change has taken hold, has really had an impact on her ability to even go outdoors because her asthma kicks up. And medical people who study this stuff will tell you that it's sort of a vicious cycle, with climate change, or air quality, resulting in poor health outcomes for people like Sandra.

WSHU: Now, could you just tell us a little bit about air quality in Connecticut, and the difference between the different types of ozone that we have? We had somewhat of a respite during the height of COVID. But it seems as if our air quality is getting worse again.

JES: Yeah, let's be clear though. What was always referred to as the brown cloud, going back to the 1970s before there were really any kind of controls on air quality broadly in the U.S., those days are gone. Air quality was magnitudes better at that time. But what has changed in the interim is climate change, which has gotten hotter, more protracted, requiring people to use more air conditioning during the summer, which has put more pollution into the air, which in turn becomes that ground level ozone, which causes a lot of that pollution. Connecticut also has an inconvenient disadvantage, in that the way the wind patterns in the U.S. work. We get a lot of the pollution from states to the west of us. And that pollution results in some of the same sorts of health outcomes that we see just generally with what we produce here. There's been a lot of action by the state of Connecticut and other northeastern states to try to get the federal government to crack down on Midwestern power plants. And there's been some success.

On your question of the two types of ozone, the ground level ozone, this is the pollution. This is the stuff that's caused by heat combined with the emissions from power plants and other sources. The other kind of stratospheric ozone, that's the old ozone hole that protects the atmosphere. And we want a lot of that ozone, because it keeps us from getting too hot. And that's an issue that popped up, you know, several decades ago, and it has actually gotten considerably better over time.

WSHU: So the higher ozone level layer that protects us, we have been able to reverse that damage. But the lower ground level ozone is what's on the increase now.

JES: Yes, that's correct. Also, you asked about what happened during COVID. Well, people stayed at home. And largely people were not in their cars going out anywhere. Factories had shut down, the kinds of things that were going on on a daily basis that required a lot of energy use had scaled back considerably, that has obviously changed. So we're seeing increases in pollution from that. There was also another unexpected factor when people were trying to stay off public transportation. A lot of people were going out and buying cars that had never bought cars before. And they were buying used cars, which may have caused more pollution than some of the newer ones.

WSHU: So now we have a situation here where the state is trying to do something. What is the state trying to do?

JES: Well, the state can only do so much. You know, it's like one of those problems if there were a simple solution, we would have had it already. The state on its own can't keep states to its west from putting pollution into the air without some cooperation from those states and or the federal government, which has been very difficult. On its own, the state and this particular region have cut way, way, way back on the types of fuels the power plants run, the coal plants in the region are all but shut down, the oil burning in power plants really only gets used in the case of an emergency. The state is trying to get automotive issues dealt with by trying to push people to buy more electric vehicles. Cars themselves have gotten cleaner over time. So just on their own the way the federal government regulates car emissions, that actually changes, then there is, for instance, how people heat their homes. Instead of using natural gas, there's a push to get people to use more efficient means of heating with things like air source heat pumps, that's been sort of a slow go.

WSHU: Well, air pumps are very expensive, much more expensive than having a gas furnace.

JES: Initially, they're more expensive. But in the long run, they are not because you're going to end up using less energy. Environmental folks have said for a long time, the cheapest energy you're going to use is the energy you don't use. And so there have been pushes to do more insulation in homes. So you don't need as much cooling or as much heating. In low-income communities that have run into a bunch of problems, because there may be other problems with the home, like asbestos insulation, or lead paint, or who knows what, that needs to be remediated before you can get to those nice energy efficiency sources. There are state programs, there are now federal programs as a result of recent legislation on the federal level that will help people pay for these sorts of things. They're in the process of being rolled out, and they will take some time. But a lot of the tools that haven't been around to do this on a large scale, in past years, especially during the Trump administration, are now becoming available. And the state is certainly trying to get money to enhance whatever they were trying to do in the past.

WSHU: Now, let's talk about something that the state legislature will be taking up this year again, which is environmental justice issues. A lot of the polluting plants are located in Black and Brown communities in Connecticut. And there's been a push to try and reverse that. What's the situation with that right now? And is the legislation that would try and remediate that going to be dealt with this year?

JES: Let me just give you a touch of background here. One of the, if you want to say, canaries in a coal mine, for where the hardest impact is felt from air pollution in this state, is the asthma rates, which disproportionately affect Black and Brown, Hispanic, low-income communities that are especially clustered around cities, and maybe around various polluting resources such as power plants, or heavy industry, or transportation corridors, things of that nature. So we know that the effects of air pollution are felt more acutely there. That brings up issues of environmental justice. And what has been attempted the last couple of years and will be attempted, again, is a way to prevent more polluting facilities such as the ones I just mentioned, from being built in those areas that are already disproportionately affected by these sorts of things. The legislation as I understand it, would try to allow the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to not issue permits to certain types of stationary polluting resources like a power plant from being built in an area that is already disproportionately affected. Now that doesn't take care of everything, but it's a step that advocates have been trying to do now for a couple of years, and they are planning to try again this year.

As WSHU Public Radio’s award-winning senior political reporter, Ebong Udoma draws on his extensive tenure to delve deep into state politics during a major election year.
Molly is a reporter covering Connecticut. She also produces Long Story Short, a podcast exploring public policy issues across Connecticut.