How does your city stack up when it comes to air pollution? The American Lung Association helps sort it out in their new report: State of the Air 2018.
The results are troubling. More than 40% of Americans live in counties where the air is unsafe to breathe due to particle pollution or ground level ozone (also called smog). That’s too many Americans breathing polluted air.
The report compiles three years of data from federal air quality monitors to grade cities and counties on their progress in cleaning up the air. The 2018 report, American Lung Association’s 19th, compiles air monitoring data collected from 2014-2016. You can learn about what’s going on in your city, and compare your city’s air with other cities, here.
Too Many Americans Breathe Unhealthy Air, But Air Quality Is Improving Overall
The number of Americans living in counties with unhealthy air has grown by almost 9 million since last year’s report, from 125 million to 133.9 million. But this still represents a sizable improvement over 2016’s report, which cites 166 million Americans living in counties with unhealthy air.
While air is improving in general, there are still far too many who are breathing dangerous pollution. Particle pollution and smog can cause a range of health problems, from shortness of breath to asthma attacks, lung infections, premature birth, stroke, and even early death. Children and the elderly are especially vulnerable to these health impacts.
Climate Change and Fracking Are Making Air Quality Worse
Particle pollution showed overall improvements in this year’s report. But in the case of ground level ozone, or smog, the picture isn’t so sunny. Compared to the previous year, the 2018 report shows that far more are breathing unhealthy smog. Of the 25 most polluted cities in the U.S., 16 of them had worse ozone pollution compared to last year’s report.
Climate change is to blame for recent spikes in ozone, according to Janice Nolen, Assistant Vice President for national policy at American Lung Association. “Hotter weather creates more ozone,” she says. As average temperatures rise and we see more heat waves because of climate change, the climatic conditions encourage more ozone formation. “The same amount of raw ingredients creates more ozone when you have hotter weather,” says Nolen.
2016 ranks as the warmest year on record. Ozone is formed in the atmosphere when certain chemicals, such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), combine with oxygen in the presence of heat and sunlight.
Another factor increasing levels of smog is fracking. The natural gas boom in the U.S. has caused unhealthy air in several rural areas. As Nolen says, “There are areas where oil and gas extraction is producing more raw ingredients” that combine with heat and sunlight in the atmosphere to form smog.
Missing Data Threatens Our Health
There are many places for which the American Lung Association was not able to calculate air quality. That’s because there were problems with the air monitors, or there are no monitors there. Two California counties with infamously poor air quality—San Bernardino County and Los Angeles County—lacked year-round particle-pollution data due to problems with collecting and processing the data from monitors. “Monitoring systems require precise care in collecting and processing,” says Nolen. Data on particle pollution is missing for all of Illinois, as has been the case for the past four years. And the majority of US counties lack an air quality monitor altogether, leaving residents in the dark about the state of their air.
“Monitoring is the infrastructure of the work we do to fight air pollution,” says Nolen. It’s important that we have enough monitors “to provide adequate information to protect public health.” We are not there yet.
Find out more about the state of your air here.