Ozone smog and fine particle pollution improved almost entirely across the board in New Jersey, with only Essex County's particle pollution grade worsening.

That was New Jersey's assessment in the American Lung Association's 2022 "State of the Air" report released Thursday.

Michael Seilback, American Lung Association national assistant vice president for state policy, called the Garden State's results a "mixed bag," as even though there was marked progress, six counties (Bergen, Camden, Hudson, Mercer, Middlesex, and Ocean) got failing grades for ground-level ozone.

"If your kid comes home with a failing grade on their report card, you're often not going to say, 'Well, they got a 64 and not a 35.' But there is a big difference in those two failing grades," Seilback said.

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Putting New Jersey in context against the rest of the United States, the New York-Newark metro area still ranked 14th-worst for ozone, and the Philadelphia-Reading-Camden metro registered 29th-worst for ozone and 18th-worst for particle pollution.

'Sunburn on the tissue of the lungs'

New Jerseyans might be surprised to see how those ratings have improved over the two decades this annual report has been issued, but Seilback said that still doesn't tell the whole story.

"We'd also be amazed that the science shows us today that exposure to these pollutants, at even lower levels, is more dangerous than we could have ever imagined," he said.

The 2022 report covered the years 2018 to 2020, over which time Seilback said New Jersey transitioned out of purple, "very unhealthy" alert days to just a handful of red "unhealthy" days, with usually the most severe conditions being coded orange, or "unhealthy for sensitive groups."

Many people may hear the word ozone and associate it with the ozone layer and the power of the sun, according to Seilback, but ground-level smog is more like a "sunburn on the tissue of the lungs" that gets cooked up on hot, sunny summer days.

A first-ever 'A' for NJ county

With that in mind, it's worth noting that the report awarded Monmouth County and its many shore towns a distinction never before earned in the Garden State.

"For the first time ever, we saw a county in New Jersey getting an 'A' grade," Seilback said. "They had no elevated days of ozone for the three-year period that we looked at."

In the category of fine particle pollution, it was all As and Bs for New Jersey counties, many of which used to fail the American Lung Association assessment.

COVID lockdown a 'minor blip'

Seilback said that while the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020 brought some noticeable environmental improvements, with fewer cars on the road, that period was a "minor blip" when taking three full years into account.

Since the initial COVID restrictions were lifted, he said, New Jersey has actually seen more trucking, more deliveries, and a return to the same old, same old as part of its "new normal."

"If we were to actually move to a place where there was much less transportation through combustion vehicles, then we might see those profound changes," Seilback said.

Impact from Western wildfires?

The American Lung Association's website is advocating a petition to send to President Joe Biden's administration, to strengthen national limits on both short-term and year-round particle pollution.

Actions such as this, Seilback said, would reflect a commitment to environmental justice for vulnerable, overpolluted communities in New Jersey and nationwide.

Seilback did say that some of New Jersey's ozone and particle pollution does not originate in the Garden State; it carries over in the air from western sources.

So the 2023 State of the Air report, which will take 2021 into account, could contain data about the residual wildfire haze residents may have seen on occasion last year.

Patrick Lavery is a reporter and anchor for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com

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