Mecklenburg County Must Do More to Improve Air Quality

by Marina Courtney

The American Lung Association (ALA) has published its findings on two critical air pollutants: ground-level ozone (smog) and particulate matter (soot). Their 24th annual State of the Air report shows that 120 million people, or more than one in three Americans, reside in counties with hazardous levels of ozone or soot pollution, which can be deadly. Of that number, 64 million (54%) are Black, Indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC)

Mecklenburg County, in particular, received a failing score for ground-level ozone pollution. While this doesn’t reflect the significant long-term improvements the county has made, it is a stark reminder that we have more work to do to reduce pollution and protect the health of our residents.

A Serious Threat to Public Health

Ozone and particulate matter are both dangerous air pollutants. In North Carolina, nine of the ten leading causes of death are caused or worsened by ozone and particle pollution (see image below), including stroke, chronic lower respiratory conditions, COVID-19, and heart disease.

Ozone, or smog, is a gas created when industrial pollutants or vehicular exhaust combines with nitrogen oxides in the atmosphere. This reaction is sparked by heat and sunlight. That means ozone levels will increase during hot, sunny summer days. And that’s bad news, because ozone can severely damage our lungs and airways, putting those with pre-existing respiratory conditions at particularly high risk.

Particulate matter, or soot, is comprised of microscopic particles emitted by factories or construction vehicles, or formed by burning wood, coal, and other fossil fuels. Fine particles (PM2.5) are small enough to infiltrate our lungs and pass into our bloodstream. From there they can wreak havoc on other primary organs, including the heart and brain.

Air pollution affects more than just our lungs. Conditions labeled with an *asterisk are among the ten leading causes of death in North Carolina.

To learn more about the health impacts of smog and soot pollution, click here

Mecklenburg’s Unique Challenge 

Both Charlotte and Mecklenburg County have significantly improved their air quality in the two decades following the passage of the Clean Smokestacks Act.

This progress is borne out in the ALA’s latest findings. Over the past three years Mecklenburg has averaged 3.7 high ozone days annually. That’s down from an average of 27.7 high ozone days a decade ago, and from an average of 65.2 high ozone days two decades ago. A 94% decrease over 20 years.

Particle pollution is also trending downwards. From 2000 to 2002, Mecklenburg County experienced 5.3 days of high soot pollution each year. Now we’re averaging just one day each year. These strides have largely been powered by efforts to expand clean energy, phase out dirty fossil fuels, and broaden the usage of public transit and low-emission vehicles.

Source: State of the Air 2023 Report, the American Lung Association

But despite this long-term progress, the American Lung Association still graded Mecklenburg County an ‘F’ for ozone pollution, and a ‘C’ for particle pollution.

Charlotte is crisscrossed by several major, heavily trafficked highways such as I-77, I-85, and I-485.

These grades are somewhat misleading. For one they don’t reflect the consistent and meaningful progress the county is making to improve its air quality. They also don’t account for some of the inherent geographical and infrastructural factors that contribute to Mecklenburg’s air pollution struggles. The county is located in a valley, surrounded by hills and mountains that trap airflow in low-lying areas.

The Charlotte metro region is ranked as the sixth fastest-growing city in the United States. Rapid growth brings an array of infrastructural issues. Highways and heavily traveled motorways crisscross the heart of the city and run through many residential neighborhoods, particularly BIPOC and low-income communities.

But these are obstacles we must overcome. The unfortunate reality is that Mecklenburg residents, far too often, are breathing unhealthy air.

Current Initiatives

Fortunately, there are several programs and collaborations in place to help lower air pollution levels in the Mecklenburg and Charlotte area, along with actions we can take to safeguard our health. If you live in Mecklenburg County, here are some ways to get involved in the push for clean, healthy air:

Historic West End Green District

This partnership between community leaders and CleanAIRE NC aims to create a green zone for Charlotte’s Historic West End neighborhoods to reduce harmful air pollution in the community and spread clean air awareness through air monitoring, strategic tree planting, green infrastructure, electric vehicle charging stations, and educational resources.

Increased Air Monitoring

Too many communities have been left in the dark about what’s in the air they breathe. To fill in this gap, CleanAIRE NC’s AirKeepers program is creating a monitoring network across North Carolina, equipping people with low-cost air sensors to collect hyperlocal air pollution data from their communities.

Protect Your Health

Public health needs to be a priority. Since ozone pollution is driven by hot, sunny weather, Mecklenburg County residents and workers are encouraged to check their local Air Quality Index (AQI) daily and avoid going outdoors on high smog days. This is especially true for anyone with underlying health conditions and for particularly vulnerable populations such as pregnant women, children, outdoor workers, and elderly adults.

Advanced Clean Trucks Program (ACT)

North Carolina will benefit from ACT’s goal of reducing heavy emissions over a period of time from vehicles on roads and highways, forcing manufacturers to meet regulatory requirements.

North Carolina Clean Transportation Plan

Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in North Carolina. The NC Department of Transportation aims to target this pollution by releasing a new Clean Transportation Plan outlining how we can prepare for a clean energy future and provide equitable outcomes for everyone.

Grants to Replace Aging Diesel Engines (GRADE)

This program provides funding incentives to businesses and organizations that replace heavy-duty, non-road equipment like tractors with newer, cleaner engines, which will lower ground-level ozone pollutants.

Breathing Room

Breathing Room is a regional initiative that aims to foster cleaner air by promoting new fleet electrification and transportation choices.

Strategic Energy Action Plan (SEAP)

SEAP is a Charlotte-based program that aims to get city fleet and facility vehicles fueled by net-zero carbon energy by 2030 and the city as a whole to low emissions by 2050.

A hazy evening in downtown Charlotte.

It’s clear that we still have more work to do, but our goal is achievable. Together we can continue Mecklenburg County’s long-term trend toward cleaner, healthier air.