Despite decades of progress in reducing harmful air pollution, 40% of Americans are still breathing air that threatens their health. That’s the conclusion reached by the American Lung Association (ALA) in their latest State of the Air report.
Air pollution can cause asthma attacks, heart attacks, stroke, and cancer. It can make our lungs vulnerable to infection and increase preterm birth and low birth weight. It can send people to the hospital and even increase overall deaths. Far too many Americans are breathing dangerous air pollution. And the burden of air pollution is not evenly distributed: According to the ALA, “People of color are over three times more likely to be breathing the most polluted air than white people.”
Each year, the ALA analyzes the three most recent years of air pollution data. They grade every county on three measures—ground-level ozone (also called smog), short-term particle pollution, and long-term particle pollution. Some findings from this year’s report—which covers the years 2017-2019, the most recent years for which data is available—include:
- More than 4 in 10 Americans live where the air they breathe earned an F.
- More than 135 million people live in counties that received an F for either ozone or particle pollution.
- Close to 20.7 million people live in counties that got an F for all three air pollution measures.
Californians Breathe the Most Pollution
The report includes a ranking of the nation’s most polluted cities. It’s easy to see that Californians suffer the nation’s worst air quality overall, with the dubious distinction of being home to 7 of the 10 worst cities for ozone pollution, and 6 of the 10 worst cities for both short-term and long-term particle pollution. This is a result of a combination of geography, weather patterns, major agricultural activity, wildfire risk, and a heavy reliance on the automobile.
But California is by no means the only area with major air pollution problems. While particle pollution is mostly a problem in the West, ground-level ozone, or smog, affects breathers on both coasts, and in most major cities. Ozone forms when air pollution combines with sunlight and heat in the atmosphere; climate change, by heating up the atmosphere, is making ozone pollution worse.
This year’s report showed increases in short-term particle pollution, likely as result of increasing wildfires. Scientists link the recent increase in wildfire duration and severity to climate change, which heats up and dries out forests, making them more likely to burn. This adds to the evidence that climate change is harming our health right now and bolsters the case for immediate climate action.
This year’s report does not include air quality data collected during the COVID pandemic. So the dramatic reductions in traffic in many urban areas as millions worked from home or lost their jobs are not reflected in the report. We’ll have to wait for next year to see that drop in traffic pollution show up in the State of the Air report.
We Need More Air Monitors
County-specific data presented in the State of the Air allows us to better understand what our families are breathing day after day. But it’s also important to note that fewer than one-third of US counties have functioning air quality monitors.
Our nation’s network of air quality monitors comprises EPA-approved, extremely expensive monitors that are painstakingly sited through a detailed process involving collaboration between EPA and state regulators. They are expensive to purchase, install, and maintain, and many sit dormant, waiting for needed repairs that states can’t afford. Smaller, less expensive air quality monitors are coming online in many places across the country, but the State of the Air report uses only data that comes from the official EPA air monitors. As climate change heats up, and as millions recovering from COVID find their lungs are more sensitive to air pollution, it’s essential that we bolster the nation’s air monitoring system so more families get the information they need to stay healthy. Biden’s budget blueprint includes increased funding for air quality monitors in Black, Indigenous, and low-income communities, which is a good start.