Richmond’s air quality keeps getting better

We had only ONE “Code Orange” ozone day this summer
Published: Nov. 2, 2022 at 9:47 AM EDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - Do you remember we used to forecast “Hazy, Hot, and Humid” summer days in Richmond? It doesn’t really happen any more.

The “hazy” part of the equation is pretty much gone! Now our hot and humid days still can have a clear blue sky like this one.

Air quality was historically good this year in Virginia.
Air quality was historically good this year in Virginia.(WWBT)

Check out the data chart below. 2022 had only ONE day this summer season when the Ozone reached Code Orange levels. A “Code Orange” day is one when the air is deemed unhealthy for sensitive groups.

Dozens of "Code Orange" and "Code Red" Days used to be common.  Since 2013, most summers have...
Dozens of "Code Orange" and "Code Red" Days used to be common. Since 2013, most summers have only a few. 2022 only had ONE!(VDEQ)

Ozone is a pollutant as the cause of the vast majority of the haze we used to see on bad air quality days. Ozone is made up of three oxygen atoms and it’s good in the stratosphere (it blocks harmful UV light) but harmful to our health at the surface, where we can breathe it.

“Ground-Level” ozone happens when hydrocarbons and Nitrous Oxides (both produced by the burning of fossil fuels) react in the presence of intense sunlight. It’s a spring and summer thing for us here in the Mid-Atlantic. And it used to be bad.

From the 1990s through the early 2000s, we averaged more than 30 Code Orange Ozone days. There were so many that it wasn’t really news when it happened. When we gave our forecasts, it was expected that many of our sunny summer days would be hazy, but not anymore.

Clean air summers are now commonplace. Here’s a story we did in 2020 about this same topic.

So what’s changed? We produce way fewer hydrocarbons that cause ozone. The VDEQ says Ozone ”can come from motor vehicle exhaust, power plants, industrial emissions, gasoline vapors, chemical solvents, as well as natural sources such as lightning, forest fires, and plant decomposition.”

Those human-made sources have all been dropping. And the big drop started with a 1990 amendment to the Clean Air Act, which was first passed in 1963.

Dan Salkovitz with VDEQ says there are many reasons our air is cleaner.

“Cleaner fuels, renewable energy sources, better, more efficient pollution controls on industries, vehicles and power plants, regulations that reduced ozone precursor emissions (nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds) regionally and especially upwind of the state, teleworking (especially during COVID shutdowns when vehicle emissions were way down), use of public transportation, and ride-sharing/car-pooling,” he said.

The change in our summer air quality has been nothing short of remarkable. But there’s still work to be done.

It is important to understand the difference between these historic improvements in air quality and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming.

Although the two issues are loosely related, an improvement in air quality does not equate to slowing or stopping global warming. More work is needed to cut down on carbon dioxide and methane emissions, two of the primary gases that lead to a warming earth.

Although Richmond’s air is measurably cleaner, it’s also getting measurably warmer every year.