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Virginia could see more days with worse air quality ratings. Here’s why.

Smoke haze from Canadian wildfires covers the horizon in Fairlawn, Virginia in June 2023.
Photo by Jason Lincoln Lester via Shutterstock
Smoke haze from Canadian wildfires covers the horizon in Fairlawn, Virginia in June 2023.

Virginians could start seeing more days rated with poorer air quality, the state says. But that’s because of changes in the standards – not the air.

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality puts out daily forecasts that grade air quality based on public health threats from pollution emitted by sources like cars, power plants and wildfires.

The color-coded scale ranges from green, for good quality, to maroon, when the air is considered very unhealthy. Moderate or yellow quality is acceptable but could affect people who are very sensitive to changes in the air.

The department said last week that residents might notice an uptick in days marked as moderate as opposed to good. That’s because a recent revision of federal pollution standards is stricter about what constitutes good air.

Earlier this year, the Biden administration tightened standards that regulate pollution from tiny particles known as soot. Officials with the Environmental Protection Agency said the change, which lowers the legal limit of this type of pollution, is based on a growing body of research linking it to significant health concerns.

The new standards "will result in cleaner air for everyone, protecting children, people with asthma, people with heart disease and respiratory problems," Cristina Fernandez, air and radiation division director with the EPA’s Mid-Atlantic region, told WHRO earlier this year.

The federal change set in motion a two-year process for states to prove they comply with the new standard.

Based on the latest available data – from 2020 through 2022 – Virginia already does. That means the state likely won’t have to do anything differently to limit pollution.

Katherine is WHRO’s climate and environment reporter. She came to WHRO from the Virginian-Pilot in 2022. Katherine is a California native who now lives in Norfolk and welcomes book recommendations, fun science facts and of course interesting environmental news.

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