With the coronavirus pandemic keeping many Americans at home, the nation’s largest cities have seen notable declines in air pollution, due to travel restrictions and industrial closures. But this respite belies some troubling trends in US air quality. According to the American Lung Association, close to half of all Americans live in counties where breathing the air is unhealthy. And the past few years show declining air quality nationwide, adding to the evidence that climate change is harming our health.
These trends were highlighted in the 2020 State of the Air report, released by the American Lung Association this week. For 21 years, the American Lung Association has been grading counties and cities on air quality, based on air monitoring data. This year – the 50th anniversary of the Clean Air Act – is the fourth year in a row in which the annual report indicated more people breathing unhealthy air compared to the previous year. Despite decades of progress, the trend lines are now headed in the wrong direction.
The State of the Air report compiles data about smog (also called ground level ozone) and particulate pollution. For particulate pollution, the report looks at both the short-term average and the long-term average. The 2020 analysis shows that more than 20 million people (6.4%) live in counties with unhealthy levels of all three of these measures. This is an increase of 600,000 from the 2019 report.
The report cites climate change as one of the main reasons why air quality seems to be worsening: “The “State of the Air” 2020 report adds to the evidence that a changing climate is making it harder to protect human health. The three years covered in this report ranked among the five hottest years on record globally. High ozone days and spikes in particle pollution followed, putting millions more people at risk and adding challenges to the work cities are doing across the nation to clean up.”
This report comes in the wake of a slew of clean air attacks — conducted while families and communities are already reeling from the impacts of a respiratory pandemic – from EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler who, just last week, refused to protect Americans from deadly particulate pollution. In announcing his plan to reject the latest science showing that our nation’s current standards are too weak to protect us, Wheeler showed, yet again, how little he values the health of Americans – despite the agency’s explicit mission to protect public health.
It’s clear that more work needs to be done to clean up our nation’s air. Many California cities crowd the top the list of the most polluted cities nationwide, but air pollution in America is certainly not limited to California. You can find out if you live in one of the cities that ranks worst for the three types of pollutants evaluated by the American Lung Association: smog (ground level ozone); short-term particulate pollution; and long-term particulate pollution. I do: Washington, DC, ranks 20th among the worst 25 cities for smog pollution.
You can also find out how your state is doing overall through the state report cards. Mine receives an F. How does your state rank?
There’s some good news, too. Four US cities earn a gold star for being having the cleanest air in the country. They are: Bangor, ME; Burlington, VT; Honolulu, HI; and Wilmington, NC. Learn more about other clean air cities here.