New Trouble in the Air report shows NJ metro regions average 46 days of unhealthy air in 2020

Media Contacts
Emma Horst-Martz

Advocate, PennPIRG

Unhealthy air days for particulate matter and ozone experienced across the region despite COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns

NJPIRG Law and Policy Center

Trenton, NJ – The six metropolitan regions of the state, stretching from Atlantic City to Jersey City, suffered through an average of 46 days of elevated air pollution in 2020, according to a new report from Environment New Jersey Research & Policy Center, Frontier Group and the NJPIRG Law & Policy Center. EPA monitoring data from 2020 represent the most recent data available from an array of air monitors across the state. Air pollution increases the risk of premature death, asthma attacks, cancer and other adverse health impacts even at moderate levels and air pollution is directly linked to 17,646 deaths every year in New Jersey.

“Even one day of breathing in polluted air has negative consequences for our health,” said Hayley Berliner, Clean Energy Advocate with Environment New Jersey Research & Policy Center. “Even with COVID pandemic lockdowns, we still suffered through a month and a half of days with unhealthy air to breathe. If we are going to recapture the cleaner air we breathed during the lockdown, we need to electrify our cars, trucks and buildings and expand clean, renewable energy.  We need to do more to deliver cleaner air for our communities.” 

In the report, Trouble in the Air: Millions of Americans Breathed Polluted Air in 2020, researchers reviewed Environmental Protection Agency air pollution records from across the country. The report focuses on ground-level ozone and fine particulate pollution, which are harmful pollutants that come primarily from burning fossil fuels such as coal, diesel, gasoline, methane gas and from wildfires. 

“No level of air pollution should be considered ‘safe.’ Even small amounts of pollution have a tremendous negative impact on the health of our residents,” said Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker and Chair of the Assembly Science & Technology Committee (D-16). “Therefore, it is up to us to focus on protecting New Jersey’s air and ensuring a healthier and cleaner Jersey today and for generations to come.”

Table A1. Days with elevated ozone, particulates and total pollution, by geographic area, 2020

“Exposure to ozone and particulate matter pollution that’s produced has been linked to premature

death; damage to respiratory and cardiovascular systems; diminished mental health and neural

functioning; problems with fertility, pregnancy and birth; and increased risk of many types of cancer,” said Catherine Chen, hospitalist and Assistant Professor at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. “These effects are particularly detrimental to children. For example, today in Newark nearly 1 in 4 children have asthma – a rate 3 times higher than the national average.”

Supplementing the content of the report is a digital map that visualizes the bad air days across the country in 2020. The report also documented the largest sources of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds that contribute to particulate matter and ozone, with transportation being the largest cumulative source. (NJ was tied for 1st for states with the largest percentage — 75% — of nitrogen oxides coming from transportation.) 

“Electrifying all forms of transportation is the way to take the bull by the horns.  To state the obvious, remove the tailpipe and there is no pollution,” said Pam Frank, CEO of ChargEVC. “The unintended COVID experiment providing us with empty highways showed us what a difference this makes.  For the people who suffer disproportionately from toxic air, this can’t happen soon enough.”

“Though we’ve made progress toward cleaner air, we need to end our reliance on fossil fuels to make lasting improvements,” said Emma Horst-Martz, Advocate with the NJPIRG Law & Policy Center. “Air pollution is making people sick.”

While the report finds that air pollution problems persist, the solutions for cleaning our air are readily achievable. The report recommends that policymakers electrify our buildings, equipment and transportation; transition to clean renewable energy; and strengthen federal air quality standards.

“This new report is very troubling, we are clearly at a tipping point in our country, climate change is here, and we are seeing its very real consequences every day,” said Congressman Andy Kim (D-3). “We need to make big investments now that will create thousands of jobs here in New Jersey and provide a cleaner, safer environment for us, our kids, and generations to come.”

Congress is currently negotiating a bipartisan infrastructure bill that would jumpstart cleaner transportation projects, including up to $7.5 billion for electric vehicle charging stations. Congress is also considering the Build Back Better Act, which could create even larger investments in climate solutions that can also clean our air.

There is no documented safe level of exposure to these air pollutants. Even when smog levels are “good” or “moderate” as defined by EPA, a modest increase in smog pollution results in more premature deaths. The case is the same for particulate pollution. There is also active concern that the public health risk is not fully stated by current federal air quality standards.

“Air pollution from burning fossil fuels really is ‘trouble in the air’ that threatens the health of everyone who breathes, with a growing list of harmful impacts on our bodies including lungs, hearts, brains, and more,” said Rob Laumbach, Professor at Rutgers University, Environmental & Occupational Health Science Institute.


Environment New Jersey Research & Policy Center is a 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to protecting our air, water and open spaces. We work to protect the places we love, advance the environmental values we share, and win real results for our environment.

NJPIRG Law and Policy Center is an independent, non-partisan group that works for consumers and the public interest. Through research, public education and outreach, we serve as counterweights to the influence of powerful special interests that threaten our health, safety or well-being. 

Frontier Group is a nonpartisan research and policy development center, providing information and ideas to help build a cleaner, healthier and more democratic America.