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137 million in US live with unhealthy levels of air pollution: American Lung Association

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More than 40 percent of the U.S. population — or 137 million people — are living in areas with unhealthy levels of particle pollution or ozone, according to the American Lung Association’s newest “State of the Air” report card.

That’s 2.1 million people living in counties with unsafe air compared to last year’s report card — and 8.9 million more people impacted by daily spikes in potentially deadly particle pollution, the authors found.

“‘State of the Air 2022’ shows that an unacceptable number of Americans are still living in areas with poor air quality that could impact their health,” Harold Wimmer, national president and CEO of the American Lung Association, said in a statement.

The report card is an annual publication from the Lung Association that tracks and grades exposure to particle pollution and ground-level pollution, or smog, and to short-term spikes in particle pollution, or soot.

Each report card covers a three-year period: 2018-2020 in the latest version and 2017-2019 in the previous edition. 

While the 2022 report shows long-term air quality improvements — which the authors attributed to emissions reductions — such efforts were offset by the negative impacts of hotter, drier conditions caused by climate change. Western wildfires were also responsible for the sharp rise in particle pollutions in several states, the authors noted.

Fine particulate matter — particles with a diameter of less than 2.5 microns, also known as PM 2.5 — can be especially deadly, the report warned. These microscopic particles, which can come from wildfires, wood-burning stoves, coal-fired power plants and diesel engines, can trigger asthma attacks, heart attacks and strokes, and also potentially cause lung cancer.

The State of the Air report assigned two grades for particle pollution: one for short-term exposure, or daily spikes, and a second for annual averages in a specific location. In general, the regions that fared the worst in both categories were located in California.

The report found that a total of 63.2 million people lived in the 96 counties that earned an “F” for unhealthy spikes in short-term particle pollution.

The top five offending regions: 1. Fresno-Madera-Hanford, Calif.; 2. Bakersfield, Calif.; 4. Fairbanks, Alaska; 4. San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland, Calif.; and 5. Redding-Red Bluff, Calif.

More than 20.3 million people live in one of the 21 counties where annual particle pollutions exceeded national air quality limits, according to the report.

The top five offending regions: 1. Bakersfield, Calif.; 2. Fresno-Madera-Hanford, Calif.; Visalia, Calif.; 4. San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland, Calif.; and 5. Los Angeles-Long Beach, Calif.

The State of the Air report also found that more than 122.3 million people live in the 156 counties that earned a failing score with respect to ozone pollution.

Ground-level ozone contamination, the authors explained, constitutes “a powerful respiratory irritant whose effects have been likened to sunburn of the lung.” Exposure to ozone, which is more likely to form in a warming climate, can lead to shortness of breath, coughing and asthma attacks — and ultimately may shorten life, the report warned.

While the 122.3 million figure is actually 860,000 less than the number of people in last year’s report, it includes millions of people at an increased risk of harm from ozone, such as 27.8 million children and 18.5 million seniors, according to the report.

The top five offending regions for ozone: 1. Los Angeles-Long Beach, Calif.; 2. Bakersfield, Calif.; 3. Visalia, Calif.; 4. Fresno-Madera-Hanford, Calif.; and Phoenix-Mesa, Az.

Close to 19.8 million people reside in one of the 14 counties that failed in all three categories, according to the report. And of these 19.8 million, 14.1 million were people of color.

“Communities of color are disproportionately exposed to unhealthy air,” Wimmer said, noting that people of color were 61 percent more likely than white people to live in a county with a failing grade for at least one pollutant, and 3.6 times as likely to live in a county that failed on all three.

“The burden of living with unhealthy air is not shared equally,” the authors stated.

While pinpointing the most problematic pockets of the U.S. and emphasizing the disproportionate nature of air pollution’s impacts, the report also shed light on which areas of the country are performing the best. 

The authors identified the cleanest regions — or those places that experienced no high ozone or particle pollution days and ranked among the 25 areas with the lowest annual particle pollution levels.

Some of the cleanest spots, in alphabetical order: Bangor, Maine.; Burlington-South Burlington-Barre, Vt.; Charlottesville, Va.; Elmira-Corning, N.Y.; Harrisonburg-Staunton, Va.; Lincoln-Beatrice, Neb.; Roanoke, Va.; Urban Honolulu, Hawaii; Virginia Beach-Norfolk, Va.-N.C.; and Wilmington, N.C.

Going forward, the American Lung Association called upon the Biden administration to bolster national limits on both short-term and year-round particle pollution.

“Stronger standards will educate the public about air pollution levels that threaten their health and drive the cleanup of polluting sources in communities across the country,” the authors added.

Tags Air pollution American Lung Association California

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