According to a recent report by the American Lung Association, about 1 in 4 Americans -- or more than 119 millions residents -- suffer from air pollution which can harm their health and shorten life expectancy. Residents of Western cities and people of color are also disproportionately affected.
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, since President Richard Nixon signed into law the Clean Air Act, in 1970, outdoor air pollution emissions have decreased by 78%. The 2023 State of the Air Report, which focuses mainly on particle and ozone pollution, shows how millions of people put their health at risk every time they go outside.
Air purification is not for everyone
Researchers analyzed Air Quality System data, a database of ambient air quality measurements from over 10,000 monitors, to capture pollution levels on a county-level. The researchers characterized the average hourly ozone and particle pollution concentrations for 2019-21 in each monitoring site, and factored year-round pollution data from the EPA.
In some areas, there were notable improvements. In general, 17.6 millions fewer people breathed unhealthy air in the report of last year, mainly due to lower levels of ozone.
Smog is primarily caused by ozone pollution. The main sources of smog are cars, power stations and refineries. Exposure to ozone may immediately worsen asthma symptoms. People with a long-term exposure at higher levels are also at a higher risk for respiratory disease.
In the report, around 25% more counties received an A for lower levels ozone pollution. According to Katherine Pruitt of the American Lung Association, the author of the report, and senior director of policy for the American Lung Association, some of this improvement can be attributed the Clean Air Act.
She said that emission controls and the continued move away from coal as a source of energy have both helped. The increase in people working from home, or even something as simple as that, has had a positive impact.
Pruitt stated that "the Biden administration set itself a strong list of things to do in order to help with climate justice and environmental justice." They're still moving slowly. We'd like to see them pick up the pace."
Not everyone has been lucky enough to be able to live in an area with low ozone. The report states that more than 100 million people reside in counties with an F grade for ozone pollution.
The cities of the West and Southwest are the most polluted with ozone, with 10 out of the top 25 cities being in California. New York, Chicago, and Hartford, Connecticut were the only cities east of the Mississippi River to make the list.
The five metropolitan areas with the worst ozone pollution are Los Angeles-Long Beach, California; Visalia, California; Bakersfield, California; Fresno-Madera-Hanford, California; and Phoenix-Mesa, Arizona.
Particle pollution is a serious problem
The report also tracks particle pollution as a major issue in the US.
Particle pollution, which is often difficult to detect, is a mixture of liquid and solid droplets. It can appear as dirt, dust or soot, but it also comes in other forms. It is produced by coal- and gas-fired plants, cars, agriculture and unpaved roads.
The particles are so small -- 1/20th the width of a hair -- they can pass through your body's normal defenses.
It can either get stuck in the lungs or enter your bloodstream instead of being exhaled. These particles can cause respiratory problems and irritation. Studies show that exposure can lead to cancer, heart attacks, strokes, or asthma. It could also aggravate the condition.
According to the new report, the number of people who live in counties that receive failing grades due to daily spikes in particle pollution is the highest in the last decade. Nearly 64 millions people live in counties with failing grades and these unhealthy levels of particle pollution.
Wildfires, which have burned hundreds of thousands acres, are a major contributor to the high levels of particle pollution. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, in 2021, there were 14407 fires. Many of them occurred in the West. Experts say that there used to be an annual wildfire season.
These fires are the reason why regions with the most air pollution concentrations are mostly in the West.
In 2004, when the American Lung Association began producing its report, 106 counties across 30 states received failing grades due to daily increases in particle pollution. Less than half of them were located in eight states westwards of the Rocky Mountains. The report states that 111 counties across 19 states received Fs today for a spike in particle pollution. All but eight counties were in the West.
In the early 2000s urban centers in the Rust belt and industrialized East received the worst grades. But many of them have improved and are now receiving passing grades.
Bakersfield in California has surpassed Fresno for the metro area with the most short-term particulate pollution. However, Fresno's air quality did not improve overnight. This city was tied with Visalia in the San Joaquin Valley for the worst particle pollution year-round.
Los Angeles has been the city with the most ozone pollution for the past nine years, except one.
California is home to some of the most progressive environmental laws in the nation, but climate change has been a harsh critic for the state. Tarik Benmarhnia of the University of California San Diego's air pollution and wildfire research team, who was not involved with the new report, says this.
"All of these cities, like Bakersfield or Visalia, are located in a valley close to forests that have large fires. Benmarhnia added that there is also intensive agricultural and industrial activity in the area, which makes it worse for air pollution.
Denver and Fargo in North Dakota are newcomers on the list of 25 places with the highest particle pollution. Reno, Nevada, Yakima, Spokane and Spokane in Washington, and Boise in Idaho, all made this year's list of the 25 areas with the most particle pollution.
San Luis Obispo in California, Portland, Oregon, Seattle, Washington, and Bellingham have all been removed from the list of 25 worst cities.
The report states that residents in cities with the worst air pollution have to deal with it more. The report found that in the 25 worst cities for air quality, the number of days on average residents spent being exposed to high levels fine particle pollution has increased.
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Lancaster, Pennsylvania were the two worst metro areas east of the Mississippi. They had more days with high fine particle pollution.
In the US, not everyone is affected by pollution in the same way. Communities of color are the hardest hit by pollution, regardless of where they live.
People of color, who make up 41 percent of the US population, are also 54 percent of the 120 million Americans living in counties that have at least one failing grade due to unhealthy air. In counties with the poorest air quality, 72% (or 18 million) of residents are people from color, according to the report.
This trend has been confirmed by other research. Pruitt says that on maps of areas with high air pollution, and communities redlined - areas where Blacks were forced to reside - they all line up perfectly.
The other issue is that when you have a voluntary community of color, where people don't have to live there because they aren't being forced to, these communities tend to have a smaller voice. So decision makers will place polluting resources in these communities, as there isn't much howling from people who have power. She said that these communities are given highways, landfills and fence lines.
Chris Tessum is a professor at the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department of University of Illinois. He says that it's a myth to think that only poorer communities are affected by pollution. Tessum says that race is the real determinant. He was not involved with the new report.
He said: "The idea that those with more money would buy better properties, that have lower air pollution, and that was just the way the world worked, is just not true."
Pollution: solutions to the problem
Tessum said that communities need to be involved in the decision-making process to promote clean air.
He said, "People who have power will use it to benefit themselves rather than the people who have historically been overburdened."
According to the new report, both government and residents have a role to play. A suggestion would be to use Inflation Reduction Act funds to reduce emissions in ports, and invest in zero emission heavy-duty trucks and infrastructure to improve air quality monitoring.
The report states that the Clean Air Act gives the authority for the state to adopt California's zero-emissions standard for cars and trucks.
The report states that agencies at the federal level must finalize stronger air pollution limits to protect the public health and promote environmental justice. This includes standards to move America towards zero-emission vehicles. Researchers say that the EPA must also set stronger standards for particle pollution, ozone and smog.
Pruitt knows from experience how to improve policies. She said that before the Clean Air Act was passed, she could see pollution every time she went outside. Today, pollution is much less visible.
"I am in my mid-60s and air pollution used to be very visible when I was younger, but now, it's not. Thank goodness." "Most people don't notice it," said she. A person may not feel it unless they have a lung problem.
Just because you cannot see or feel something doesn't mean that it isn't there. Pruitt reminds everyone that there is no safe level of pollution. According to the World Health Organization, ambient air pollution combined with household air pollution is responsible for 6.7 million premature deaths each year.
Pruitt stated that people don't realize how their breathing affects their health.