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Tackling Illinois Pollution: How To Help

Pollution refers to any type of harmful material that’s introduced to the environment. Illinois is ranked 9th in the United States for highest levels of pollution. However, Illinois is still better off than several other states in certain areas.
City view of Chicago, Illinois

Illinois is known for several things, from alternate definitions of pizza, to being the birthplace of Lincoln. And while it may not be known for pollution, it is a problem that Illinoisans face. Pollution refers to any type of harmful material that’s introduced to the environment. It can be manmade, like pollutants from burning fossil fuels, or natural, such as volcanic ash.

Every landfill is a prime example of land pollution, and harmful materials are also regularly introduced into our air and water supplies. As air and water currents move across the globe, they take pollutants right along with them. Even the most remote areas and the smallest living microbes are impacted by pollution. But there are steps Illinois residents can take to reduce the impact pollution has on their state and, thereby, the entire world.

Where Illinois stacks up against other states

Although Illinois ranked 42 in the U.S. News list of 50 states with low levels of pollution – which would make it the ninth highest – you may not want to start packing your bags just yet. When you start looking at specific areas, such as water quality, air quality and land pollution, Illinois is better off than several other states.

Water pollution

Illinois is blessed with an abundant water supply from streams, rivers, lakes and ponds. Its jurisdiction even includes 1,500 square miles of open water in nearby Lake Michigan. The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency reported that 99% of the state’s population is served with good quality drinking water from community water supplies. A U.S. News report ranks Illinois as 21 out of 50 when it comes to the best states for water quality. That doesn’t mean, however, the state hasn’t had its water quality challenges. A major challenge is urban water runoff, which introduces pollutants that range from vehicle toxins to septic system viruses.

During heavy rains or snow melts, the waste water and sewage volume can actually exceed the capacity of the system. The system then discharges excess waste-water into the nearby lakes, rivers and streams.

The greatest water quality issues in surface and groundwater resources include:

  • E. coli bacteria contamination
  • Fish exposed to mercury and harmful polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)
  • Low oxygen levels
  • Excessive amounts of algae, suspended solids and manganese, phosphorous, siltation and nitrogen

Illinois also ranked higher than the national average for lead exposure in children, stemming from neurotoxic lead in school drinking water. The Preventing Lead in Drinking Water Act sought to remedy that, requiring water testing in school buildings, with notifications sent to student parents and guardians if lead results are higher than five parts per billion (ppb).

Air pollution

Air pollution in Chicago, Illinois

The air quality in Illinois has dramatically improved since the 1990s, when heavy industry saw a decrease and vehicle emissions saw more effective controls. Yet it isn’t totally in the clear just yet.

Illinois ranked near the bottom of the scale for states with the best urban air quality, ranking 47 out of 50. A 2022 report from the American Lung Association ranked Cook County as the 25th most polluted place to live in terms of ozone, although it didn’t make the top 25 list for high levels of particle pollution.

The Chicago metropolitan area rated an F for high ozone days, averaging 16 of them in 2022. While the results are less than outstanding, they aren’t as grim as the 98.2 high ozone days experienced in Bakersfield, California.

On a scale of 1 to 500, the Air Quality Index (AQI) in cities across the state range from a low of 4 in Rockton to a high of 88 in La Grange. Chicago weighs in at 47. The lower the score, the better the air quality.

Anything rated at 50 or below is considered good. Anything rated above 300 is the hazardous zone. A score of 88 is considered moderate.

Land pollution

With a population of around 12.8 million, Illinois ranks as the sixth most populated state in the nation. The more people you have, the more waste you’re going to get. As of 2018, Illinois has total of 38 active landfills. Those landfills have a life expectancy of 21 years which is how long it takes for landfills to fill.

The state keeps a keen eye on its solid waste, with initiatives and inspections designed to help protect the environment.

Best and worst areas

Illinois has an overall population of around 12.6 million, with more than 5 million of those folks living in the Chicago area of Cook County. That said, you may think that Chicago’s pollution rates are higher than the rest of the state across the board – although that’s not always the case.

Chicago may generate a lot of waste – but it was the city of Rockford that had 4,600 tons of used tires from a commercial used tire reprocessing business, though it was cleaned up in 2018. And Chicago typically doesn’t rank as the most polluted place when it comes to air quality, as evidenced by a real-time air quality tracker that shows how air pollution constantly vacillates.

What causes the highest pollution in Illinois?

Coal-burning power plant pollution

The greatest cause of pollution in Illinois is transportation and electricity generation. Cars, trucks and buses on the roadways not only contribute to the oil, grease and toxins that enter the waterways through untreated urban runoff, but emissions are a huge factor.

Burning diesel fuel and gasoline generates carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, benzene, formaldehyde, benzene and other harmful byproducts. Vehicle emissions also contain carbon monoxide, the most common manmade greenhouse gas.

Fossil fuels are likewise burned to generate electricity, creating even more pollutants throughout the state. The biggest culprit is coal-burning power plants, but pollution is also generated from those burning oil, gas and even biomass.

Efforts to reduce pollution across the board in Illinois

Illinois is no slouch when it comes to taking action to create and maintain a vibrant, healthy and energy efficient state. A number of initiatives are underway to reduce pollution across the board, with a few of the most notable examples listed below.

  • Water Quality Improvement: The Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy is aimed at improving water quality by reducing phosphorous and nitrogen levels in the rivers, streams and lakes. Its overall goal is to reduce total phosphorus and nitrogen levels by 45%, with phosphorus reduced by 25% and nitrogen reduced by 15% by 2025.
  • Solid Waste Site Inspections: The state EPA works with local government agencies across 21 counties for regular solid waste site inspections. In 2018 alone, a total of 1,500 inspections identified violations at 250 sites. The trend has been for the majority of sites to get back into compliance on their own without the need for litigation.
  • Zion Landfill Solar Project: The state EPA issued the first-of-its-kind permit in 2018 for solar panels to be built on a former municipal landfill.
  • Beneficial Use Determinations (BUDs): BUDs allow for the innovative reuse of materials, namely industrial and commercial waste that can be recycled for use in another project. Asphalt shingles, for instance, can be ground up and added to hot asphalt mixtures to improve road strength. The Illinois EPA issues an average of 12 BUDs per year.
  • EV Rebate Program: An Electric Vehicle Rebate Program offers rebates to Illinois residents who purchase all-electric vehicles from a licensed Illinois dealer. The program is open during specific rebate application cycles and it offers rebates for all-electric motorcycles as well as cars and other vehicles.
  • Community Solar Programs: Illinois residents can join a community solar farm to receive credits toward their electricity bill based on the amount of solar electricity generated by their share in the farm. It’s a way to support clean energy and support renewable energy in Illinois—without the need for expensive panel installation.

Additional Efforts from Grassroots Organizations

Grassroots organizations are also taking strides to ensure all areas of Chicago are included in the efforts to reduce pollution and improve the environment. Two in particular are strong actors in improvements for Chicago’s South Side, a place historically known for its low median income and high crime rates.

PRC: People for Community Recovery (PRC) is a group that promotes healthy communities by addressing environmental impacts while promoting affordable housing and fair economic development on the South Side of Chicago.

The group runs a Solar on the Southside program designed to help area residents learn more about and tap into solar and other energy efficiency programs to make their homes and apartments more comfortable, affordable and environmentally sustainable.

SETF: The Southeast Environmental Task Force (SETF) is a coalition of 30 organizations aiming to improve the living conditions and environment in Chicago’s southeast Calumet region. Their vision is that every facility in the area will:

  • Use the most energy-efficient processes
  • Create the least possible amount of waste and pollution
  • Hire local residents
  • Serve as a model of clean industry the rest of the world can emulate

What pollution means for you as a consumer

Pollution is harmful to your health as well as your quality of life. Exposure to ozone and particulate matter in the air has been associated with asthma, cancer, respiratory issues and cardiovascular disease.

Drinking water contaminants can likewise lead to health issues. Chemicals in drinking water may cause a variety of short-term and long-term issues, ranging from skin discoloration to organ and nervous system damage. Disease-causing microbes can also contaminate water supplies, spreading illnesses through bacteria, viruses and parasites.

Land pollution can result in water and air pollution. Hazardous and toxic substances may contaminate the air, and they may also make their way into the surface water or ground water supplies. Depending on the type and amount of contamination, any number of health issues could develop in both humans and wildlife.

How you can contribute to a cleaner Illinois

Community solar panels

Contributing to a cleaner Illinois may not be as tough as you think. Even if you feel like you’re only one person doing a lot of little actions, those little actions can add up to one cleaner and healthier whole.

Since transportation and electricity generation are the two biggest pollutants in the state, they would be a good place to start. Try car-pooling or taking public transportation to cut down on the number of vehicles on the road. Walk or ride a bicycle when possible.

Joining a community solar program can help reduce pollution by generating much-needed electricity in a clean and renewable way. Not only that, but it also saves you money on your own electricity bill.

When others see you taking action to reduce pollution and improve the environment, they may be inspired to do the same. The more Illinois residents who do their part, the healthier and cleaner the state is apt to be.

Get matched to a local solar farm and save on your electricity costs.