Fargo-Moorhead News

What landed Fargo on the list of U.S. cities with the worst short-term particle pollution?

The sun over a building
The sun sets on Sept. 14, 2020, behind a tower of the 45th Street Colonnade in Fargo, N.D. The sky was especially hazy due to smoke from California wildfires suspended in the upper atmosphere.
Michael Vosburg | The Fargo Forum

Updated: April 30, 3 p.m. | Posted: April 29, 12:20 p.m.

Wildfire smoke drifting across the region in recent summers caused particle pollution spikes that landed Fargo on a list of the worst cities for short-term particle pollution in the United States.

According to the American Lung Association’s 2024 State of the Air report, the Fargo-Moorhead area is ranked 24th of the 25 U.S. cities with the worst short-term particle pollution.

The ranking was based on Cass County’s average number of unhealthy air quality days, which averaged 7.2 days per year. This year’s report includes air quality data from 2020, 2021 and 2022.

Pat McKone, director of advocacy at the American Lung Association, said wildfire smoke is an ongoing cause of unhealthy air quality.

“That has continued to be an issue for both short-term and long-term particulate in the region,” McKone said. “It’s climate change and the resulting impacts of wildfire smoke.”

The ranking uses data from a state air quality monitor located in Cass County that measures levels of particle and ozone pollution. The state defines the monitor’s coverage area as Cass and Richland counties in North Dakota and Clay and Wilkin counties in Minnesota. The area includes the cities of Fargo, West Fargo, Moorhead, Dilworth, Wahpeton and Breckenridge.

The 2024 State of the Air report looks at EPA data to grade cities and counties on exposure to unhealthy levels of ozone air pollution, annual particle pollution and short-term spikes in particle pollution over a three-year period.

Ozone pollution, also called smog, is created when pollutants like nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds are heated by sunlight, according to the American Lung Association. The pollutants are emitted by power plants, vehicles, factories and other sources.

Particle pollution is caused by factories, power plants, vehicle emissions and fires.

Short- and long-term exposure to both types of pollution have adverse health effects.

The 2024 State of the Air report found that across the United States, 30% of Americans, or 131.2 million people, live in places with failing grades for unhealthy levels of ozone or particle pollution.

Of the places named on the list of cities with the worst short-term particle pollution, Fargo is the farthest east. Ten cities on the list are in California.

Fargo appeared on the list last year, as well, but was ranked higher at 22nd worst. Last year, the region had an average of 7.7 unhealthy days per year. The move down the list shows a slight improvement in the number of days with unhealthy air quality, McKone said.

“You don’t want to be No. 1 in the worst polluted list,” she said.

For the year-round average level of particle pollution, the Fargo-Moorhead area was ranked 99th worst in the U.S., worse than last year’s ranking of 123rd.

Looking at annual levels of ozone “smog,” Fargo-Moorhead ranked 116th worst in the U.S., improved from last year’s place of 111th.

Several Minnesota cities were recognized in the American Lung Association’s report for clean air.

According to the report, Duluth is the seventh cleanest city in the U.S. for year-round particle pollution and also made the list of cleanest cities in the U.S. for ozone air pollution.

The Rochester-Austin area was in the top 25 cleanest cities for year-round particle pollution as the 19th cleanest city on the list. It also made the list of cleanest cities in the U.S. for ozone air pollution.

The La Crosse-Onalaska, Wisconsin-Minnesota, area was also named on the American Lung Association’s list of cleanest cities in the U.S. for ozone air pollution.

Poor air quality from ozone and particle pollution can affect anybody but disproportionately affects lower-income communities, McKone said.

“Many of the plants that emit some of these air pollutants are built in parts of the city where lower-income communities are,” she said.

People with breathing problems, like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, are also more affected by poor air quality, and exposure to both types of pollution can worsen symptoms, McKone said.

Long-term exposure to ozone pollution can cause lasting damage to respiratory health, the American Lung Association said. Long-term exposure to particle pollution increases the risk of lung disease.

McKone urged people to take air quality alerts seriously and limit exposure when there are air quality alerts.

“As we are experiencing the results from climate change and more particulates and more ozone levels, we have to take those measures,” she said. “Especially for those people who, even when the air meets the standards, are struggling to breathe easy.”

Athletes, like runners, should avoid exerting themselves outside when air quality is bad, McKone said.

The State of the Air report lists recommended actions for the federal government; state, territorial and tribal governments; local governments and individuals to reduce air pollution. One of the ways individuals can reduce particle pollution is not burning wood or garbage, McKone said, which emit particles

“I’ve enjoyed many great times around a campfire or backyard fire, but the truth is that these are much more common and also have air particles that come,” she said. “In our neighborhood, when somebody’s having one of those outdoor fires, you can readily smell it — it comes into the home.”

More information about the effects of particle and ozone pollution and lung health, as well as the full 2024 State of the Air report, is available at the American Lung Association’s website, lung.org.

The Fargo Forum editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated which organization manages the air quality monitor in Cass County and the number of monitoring stations in North Dakota. The North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality operates nine monitors across North Dakota.

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