Next time you take a deep breath of fresh air, consider yourself lucky. Nearly half of Americans – more than 147 million people – live in counties where ozone or particle pollution levels make the air unhealthy to breathe, according to a recent report by the American Lung Association.
The 15th annual “State of the Air” report shows that while the country overall continued to reduce particle pollution — a pollutant recently found to cause lung cancer — poor air quality remains a significant public health concern, and a changing climate threatens to make it even harder to protect human health. Alarmingly, levels of ozone (smog) — a powerful respiratory irritant and the most widespread air pollutant — were much worse in 2014 than in the previous year’s report.
More than 27.8 million people in the United States live in 17 counties with unhealthful levels of pollutants, totaling 8.9 percent of the total population, the report says. Twenty-two of the 25 most ozone-polluted cities – including Los Angeles, New York City, and Chicago – had more high ozone days on average this year than the year before. Thirteen of the 25 cities with the worst year-round particle pollution reached their lowest levels yet, including Los Angeles, Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Bakersfield.
Ozone is the most common air pollutant in the country, and also happens to be one of the hardest to reduce, according to ALA. Though particle pollution levels showed improvement, ozone worsened in the most polluted metropolitan areas in 2010 to 2012 compared to 2009 to 2011. The warm summers in 2010 and 2012 contributed to higher ozone readings and more frequent high ozone days, according to the report.
Of the 25 metro areas most polluted by ozone, 22 had worse ozone problems than in the previous year. Among those measuring worse ozone problems were Los Angeles, Houston, Washington-Baltimore, Las Vegas, Phoenix, New York City, Cincinnati, Chicago and Philadelphia.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Los Angeles remains the metropolitan area with the worst ozone pollution — a ranking it has held in all but one of the 15 “State of the Air” reports. However, the city has managed to erase more than one-third of its unhealthy ozone days (by weighted average) in the last 15 years.
Bangor, ME, Bismarck, N.D., Cape Coral-Fort Myers, Fla., and Salinas, Calif., were named the “cleanest cities” for having zero days with unhealthy levels of ozone or particle pollution, and for being among the 25 cities with the lowest year-round particle levels.
Many areas also maintained significant strides in reducing year-round particle pollution, according to the report. Lower particle-pollution levels are a direct result of the transition to cleaner diesel engines and the cleanup of coal-fired power plants, especially in the eastern United States. Several major cities reached their lowest annual levels ever, including Philadelphia, Cincinnati and Indianapolis.
Progress also was seen in reducing short-term “spikes” in particle pollution this year. Among those measuring their fewest ever unhealthy days were Pittsburgh, Salt Lake City and San Diego.
In the report, ALA says safeguards are necessary to protect the health of the millions of people living in counties with dangerous levels of either ozone or particle pollution, which can cause wheezing and coughing, asthma attacks, heart attacks, and premature death. Those at greatest risk from air pollution are infants, children, older adults, anyone with lung diseases like asthma, people with heart disease or diabetes, people with low incomes, and anyone who works or exercises outdoors.
Here are some tips ALA have given to improve the air everyone breathes:
- Clean up power plants: The EPA needs to reduce carbon pollution, the ALA says: Ozone and particle pollution that blows across state lines must be controlled. In the next year, the Obama administration has pledged to set standards for carbon pollution from new and existing power plants.
- Strengthen the outdated ozone standards: The EPA needs to set a strong, health-based standard to limit ozone pollution, the association urges. Strong standards will drive the needed cleanup of ozone across the nation.
- Clean up new wood-burning devices: The EPA needs to issue strong standards to clean up new wood stoves, outdoor wood boilers and other residential wood-burning devices.
- Fund the work to provide healthy air: Congress needs to adequately fund the work of the EPA and the states to monitor and protect the nation from air pollution, ALA adds.
- Protect the Clean Air Act: Congress needs to ensure that the protections under the Clean Air Act remain strong and enforced.
The average person at rest takes about 16 breaths per minute. This means we breathe about 960 breaths an hour, 23,040 breaths a day and 8,409,600 a year. The air we breathe is one of the most important influencers of life’s quality and longevity — let’s take care of it, so it can take care of us.
Image credit: Flickr Andrew Hall
Based in San Francisco, Mike Hower is a writer, thinker and strategic communicator that revels in driving the conversation at the intersection of sustainability, social entrepreneurship, tech, politics and law. He has cultivated diverse experience working for the United States Congress in Washington, D.C., helping Silicon Valley startups with strategic communications and teaching in South America. Connect with him on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter (@mikehower)