Over half of Americans live in dangerous levels of air pollution

Posted May 3, 2011 by Lynn Herrmann
A new report listing the most polluted cities in the US shows that, while improvements in levels of ozone and year-round particle pollution have occurred, more than half of all Americans live in areas with dangerous levels of air pollution.
Los Angeles skyline with smog.
Los Angeles skyline with smog.
Metro Transportation Library and Archive
The American Lung Association’s annual report on air quality just released includes lists of the country’s most polluted metro areas, and while there have been improvements of ozone (smog) or year-round particle pollution (soot) levels, linked to the Clean Air Act, some members of Congress are keen on the idea of weakening the law.
“State of the Air tells us that the progress the nation has made cleaning up coal-fired power plants, diesel emissions and other pollution sources has drastically cut dangerous pollution from the air we breathe,” said Charles D. Conner, President and CEO of the American Lung Association, in a news release. “We owe our cleaner air to the Clean Air Act. We have proof that cleaning up pollution results in healthier air to breathe. That’s why we cannot stop now. Half of our nation is still breathing dangerously polluted air. Everyone must be protected from air pollution.”
In State of the Air 2011 (pdf), cities and counties were graded, in part, on the Environmental Protection Agency’s color-coded Air Quality Index prepared to alert people on daily unhealthy air quality. Data for the report was obtained from the EPA using information collected between 2007 through 2009 from monitors for ozone and particle pollution, the two most widespread types of air pollution.
Almost 61 million Americans (19.8 percent) live in 76 counties with unhealthy spikes of short-term particle pollution. These short-term spikes, lasting from hours to several days, can increase the chance of heart attacks, strokes, and emergency-room visits related to cardiovascular disease and asthma. Most importantly, the report notes, these short-term spikes can increase the risk of early death.
Filling the first seven spots on the top-10 list of most polluted cities is the state of California, with the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Riverside area being the nation’s worst. In descending order, all in California, are Bakersfield-Delano, Visalia-Porterville, Fresno-Madera, Sacramento-Arden-Arcade-Yuba City, Hanford-Corcoran, and San Diego-Carlsbad-San Marcos region.
The report shows that, on the list of counties with the heaviest concentration of short-term particle pollution, almost 10 million people living in Los Angeles county (#6 on the list) are at risk. Those numbers are compounded dramatically because the state as a whole fares no better in the top 25 counties of that category, placing 15 on the list.
Further asserting its dominance on that list, 10 of those California counties are in the top 15, and combined place more than 18 million Californians at risk.
Two US counties, Los Angeles CA (9.8 million) and Cook IL (5.3 million) have the largest concentration of US citizens at risk from short-term particle pollution.
For the report, at-risk groups include under 18, 65 and over, pediatric asthma, adult asthma, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, CV disease, diabetes, and those living in poverty. Los Angeles county,CA leads in all nine at-risk groups with Cook, IL holding down the second position across all nine groups.
The list of 25 most ozone-polluted counties in the US is dominated by California, as well, with the top 11 counties on that list all being from the Golden State. Additionally, 18 of the 25 most ozone-polluted counties across the country are in California.
“Particle pollution kills,” said Norman Edelman, MD, American Lung Association Chief Medical Officer, in the release. “When you breathe these microscopic particles, you are inhaling a noxious mix of chemicals, metals, acid aerosols, ash and soot that is emitted from smokestacks, tailpipes, and other sources. It is as toxic as it sounds and can lead to early death, asthma exacerbations, heart attacks, strokes and emergency room visits in substantial numbers. Science clearly has proven that we need to protect the health of the public from the dangers of particle pollution.”
According to the report, Cheyenne, WY and Santa Fe-Española, NM were identified as the cleanest cities in the nation for year-round particle pollution.
Alexandria, LA tops the list of cleanest US cities for short-term particle pollution, followed by Amarillo, TX. The cleanest cities for ozone air pollution are Bismark, ND and the Brownsville-Harlingen-Raymondville region in the south Texas valley.
Among the many challenges facing elected government officials, the report calls for protecting the Clean Air Act. The landmark law, passed by Congress 40 years ago, is now under assault by certain members of Congress, and if the Act is dismantled, could effectively wipe out 40 years of progress.
Cutting toxic emissions form dirty power plants is another recommendation in the report. More than 440 coal-fired power plants are in existence in 46 states. They are among the largest contributors to ozone, particulate pollution, mercury, and global warming, with their emissions knowing no state lines, often traveling thousands of miles in the air. These plants’ hazardous emissions include arsenic, mercury, dioxins, formaldehyde, and hydrogen chloride. The report calls for Congressional support of the EPA’s proposals to reduce these emissions and placing a national limit on the amount of toxic pollutants these plants can emit.
A strengthening of ozone standards and particle pollution standards is also recommended in the American Lung Association report. These two actions could save thousands of lives annually.
The report notes people living or working near highways carry a disproportionate health burden from air pollution. With technology currently available, existing fleets of dirty diesel vehicles and heavy equipment should be upgraded, helping cut these dirty fleet emissions by as much as 90 percent.
Cars, light trucks and SUVs need new pollution standards, set by the EPA, to reduce harmful tailpipe emissions.
Recommendations include messaging the President, Congress and the EPA to voice support of the Clean Air Act. Driving less, conserving electricity, active community involvement over the issue, and making sure local school systems have replaced or are retrofitting old school buses to help reduce emissions.