4 in 10 Americans Live in Places Where It Is Unhealthy for Them to Breathe, New Study Says

Pam Wright
Published: April 20, 2017

Nearly four in 10 Americans now live in counties that have unhealthful levels of ozone, particle pollution or both.

According to the American Lung Association's State of the Air 2017, 38.9 percent of residents living in the United States are in a place that can make breathing difficult and be a factor for some long-term health problems.

Bakersfield, California, once again topped the list of having the most days of highly polluted air in the years covered in the report, 2013 to 2015. In fact, six of the top 10 most polluted cities are in California, due to the state's topography, the high number of sunny days and the emissions spewed from millions of vehicles.

Other notable Golden State areas cited in the findings include Visala/Hanford, which is the worst for year-round particle pollution, and Los Angeles/Long Beach, which has the highest levels of ozone year-round. 

There is some good news in the report, although it comes with a caveat. The number of people exposed to unhealthy levels of air pollution dropped to more than 125 million people, which is down from 166 million in the years covered in the 2016 report, from 2012 to 2014.

"The State of the Air 2017 report shows that cleaning up pollution continues successfully in much of the nation," the study says. "In the 25 cities with the worst ozone and year-round particle pollution, the majority saw improvements from last year. Many again reached their lowest levels ever of these widespread air pollutants."

The scientists behind the report made a point of noting, however, that while pollution levels have improved overall, "some people seek to weaken the Clean Air Act, the public health law that has driven the cuts in pollution since 1970, and to undermine the ability of the nation to fight for healthy air." They are referring to the Trump administration's proposal to cut 31 percent of the Environmental Protection Agency's budget and "discontinue funding for the Clean Power Plan, international climate change programs, climate change research and partnership programs."

Air pollution emissions continue to drop steadily since 1970 thanks to the Clean Air Act. As the economy continues to grow, emissions that cause ozone and particle pollution continue to drop. Source: U.S. EPA, Air Trends: Air Quality National Summary, 2017.
(Source: U.S. EPA, Air Trends: Air Quality National Summary, 2017, via American Lung Association)

On the downside, although year-round pollution has improved, short-term spikes of severely polluted air have increased.

"While most of the nation has much cleaner air quality than even a decade ago, many cities reported their highest number of unhealthy days since the report began, including some that experienced extreme weather events," the study notes.

The study also points out that climate change is making it more difficult to protect human health, along with the increased risk of premature death, asthma attacks and lung cancer.

"As climate change continues, cleaning up these pollutants will become ever more challenging," the scientists say. "Climate change poses many threats to human health, including worsened air quality and extreme weather events. The nation must continue to reduce emissions that worsen climate."

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