Everyone needs clean air to breathe. But it’s especially important for kids with asthma, pregnant women and newborns, those suffering from respiratory illnesses, and people with heart issues.
Yet, despite decades of progress on cleaning up multiple sources of air pollution, the annual air quality “report card” from the American Lung Association, the “State of the Air,” finds that more people in the US were exposed to unhealthy air last year than in previous years. And the nation’s air remains at unhealthy levels for millions of families. For many, especially families living in the West, climate-change-driven wildfires—which are burning hotter, faster, and longer—have spiked dangerous levels of particulate matter.
Here are the key findings from the State of the Air report:
“More than 40% of Americans—over 137 million people—are living in places with failing grades for unhealthy levels of particle pollution or ozone. This is 2.1 million more people breathing unhealthy air compared to last year’s report. Nearly 9 million more people were impacted by daily spikes in deadly particle pollution than reported last year. In the three years covered by this report, Americans experienced more days of “very unhealthy” and “hazardous” air quality than ever before in the two-decade history of “State of the Air.”
More than 4 in 10 Americans live in places with unhealthy levels of air pollution.
The “State of the Air” report looks at two of the most widespread and dangerous air pollutants, fine particles and ozone. The air quality data used in the report is collected at official monitoring sites across the United States by federal, state, local, and Tribal governments. The Lung Association calculates values reflecting the air pollution problem and assigns grades for daily and long-term measures of particle pollution and daily measures of ozone. Those values are also used to rank cities (metropolitan areas) and counties. This year’s report presents data from 2018, 2019, and 2020, the most recent quality-assured nationwide air pollution data publicly available. See About This Report for more detail about the methodology for data collection and analysis.
“State of the Air” 2022 is the 23rd edition of this annual report, which was first published in 2000. From the beginning, the findings in “State of the Air” have reflected the successes of the Clean Air Act, as emissions from transportation, power plants, and manufacturing have been reduced. In recent years, however, the findings of the report have added to the evidence that a changing climate is making it harder to protect human health. The three years covered by “State of the Air” 2022 ranked among the seven hottest years on record globally. Spikes in particle pollution and high ozone days related to wildfires and extreme heat are putting millions more people at risk and adding challenges to the work that states and cities are doing across the nation to clean up air pollution.
The combination of policy-driven reductions in emissions on the one hand and climate change-fueled increases in pollution on the other hand is resulting in a widening disparity between air quality in eastern and western states. Fifteen years ago, in the 2007 “State of the Air” report, 136 counties in 36 states got failing grades for spikes in particle pollution, including 31 counties in seven states west of the Rocky Mountains. In 2022, 96 counties in 15 states got failing grades for short-term particles, and 86 of them were in 11 western states. Historically urban, industrialized eastern and midwestern states like New Jersey, New York, and Ohio, which in 2007 had 21 counties on the list between them, are now getting passing grades. A similar story can be told for annual particle pollution. In 2007, 73 counties in 18 states got failing grades for annual particle pollution, and all but eight counties in California and one in Montana were east of the Rockies. In 2022, all of the 21 counties that got a failing grade for annual particle pollution were in five western states.
People of color are 3.6 times more likely than white people to live in a county with 3 failing grades.
Again this year, “State of the Air” finds that the burden of living with unhealthy air is not shared equally. Close to 19.8 million people live in the 14 counties that failed all three measures. Of those, 14.1 million are people of color. People of color were 61% 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 with failing grades for all three pollutants.
In “State of the Air” 2022, Fresno, California, displaced Fairbanks, Alaska, as the metropolitan area with the worst short-term particle pollution and Bakersfield, California, continued in the most-polluted slot for year-round particle pollution for the third year in a row. Los Angeles remains the city with the worst ozone pollution in the nation, as it has for all but one of the 23 years tracked by the “State of the Air” report.
We need action at every level to clean up air pollution and address climate change.
Here are important suggestions from the American Lung Association about what you and local, state, and federal governments can do:
- Check daily air pollution forecasts in your area at airnow.gov.
- Protect yourself from wildfire smoke if you live in a fire-prone area.
- Reduce your own contributions to air pollution.
- Adopt a climate action plan.
- Purchase zero-emission fleet vehicles.
- Establish purchasing goals for renewable, noncombustion electricity.
State and Tribal Governments
- Set a clean or renewable electricity standard or clean peak standard that phases out the use of coal, oil, natural gas.
- Invest in air quality monitoring.
- States: Use Clean Air Act authority to adopt the California zero-emissions standards for light-, medium- and heavy-duty vehicles.
- Congress must pass investments in zero-emissions electricity and transportation into law.
- EPA must propose and finalize strong new emissions standards that transition the nation’s cars and trucks to zero-emission vehicles.
- EPA must set a stronger national standard for particulate matter.
- EPA must set a stronger national standard for ozone.