(April 24, 2019)
The American Lung Association’s 2019 “State of the Air” report finds that air quality in much of the nation got worse in 2015-2017. More cities had more days of high ozone and spikes in short-term particle pollution compared to last year’s report. Many cities also measured increased levels of year-round particle pollution. More people suffered from polluted air, too: the number of people living in counties that had unhealthy air increased to nearly 141.1 million from the previous report—that’s over 7 million more Americans exposed to unhealthy air than in last year’s report.
“State of the Air” also adds to the evidence that a changing climate is making it harder to protect human health. Rising temperatures lead to more ozone formation and conditions that result in more frequent and intense wildfires, putting millions more people at risk and challenging efforts to clean up air pollution.
One alarming finding that indicates our changing climate is degrading air quality is that the nation recorded more days considered hazardous—labeled “maroon” on the air quality index—than ever before. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Air Quality Index, that level of pollution signifies air pollution levels at emergency conditions that are hazardous for anyone to breathe.
Note: Values above 500 are considered Beyond the AQI. Follow recommendations for the Hazardous category. Additional information on reducing exposure to extremely high levels of particle pollution is available here.
An Air Quality Report Card
Each year, “State of the Air” provides a “report card” on air pollution all across the nation. Each year the report analyzes the most recent quality-assured data. This year’s report reviews data collected from air quality monitors from 2015 to 2017, and focuses on the two most common and harmful types of air pollution – ozone (smog) and particle pollution (soot). “State of the Air” tells how much of each type of pollution is in the air where you live and breathe. Knowing the air quality where you live, or travel, is important because both ozone and particle pollution can harm your health, and even shorten lives.
Approximately 43 percent of the population, or more than four in ten Americans, live in counties that have unhealthy ozone and/or particle pollution, an increase from the past two reports. More than 20 million people, or a little more than 6 percent, live in 12 counties that failed all three measures.
Los Angeles remains the city with the worst ozone pollution as it has for 19 years of the 20-year history of the report. Fresno-Madera-Hanford, CA returned to the most polluted slot for year-round particle pollution, while Bakersfield, CA, maintains its rank as the city with the worst short-term particle pollution. Six cities—all of them “returning champions” from previous years—ranked as the cleanest cities on all three lists, including Bangor, ME, Burlington-South Burlington, VT, Honolulu, HI, Lincoln-Beatrice, NE, Palm Bay-Melbourne-Titusville, FL and Wilmington, NC.
Want to see how your community ranks, as well as the lists of most-polluted and least-polluted U.S. cities? Visit “State of the Air” and find out.
More Americans at Risk
The fact that air quality has slipped in many areas means more Americans face increased risk from the health effects of air pollution. Those at greatest risk include infants, children, older adults, anyone living with lung diseases such as asthma, COPD and lung cancer, and people with heart disease or diabetes. Those also at risk include anyone who works or exercises outdoors and people with low incomes who might have increased exposure to air pollution sources. However, dangerous levels of air pollution can harm everyone, even healthy adults.
High levels of pollution can cause wheezing and shortness of breath and can trigger severe asthma attacks, heart attacks and strokes. In 2013, the World Health Organization concluded that particle pollution can cause lung cancer, the leading cancer killer in America.
Climate Change Threatens Health
The report also identifies climate change as an area of acute concern, especially as the cause of an increasing number of dangerous spikes in particle pollution. In fact, eight cities experienced their highest number of spikes since monitoring for this pollutant began, with close to 50 million people living in counties that experienced too many days when particle pollution peaked at unhealthy levels. Why? Wildfires, especially in the Northwest (Montana, Washington) and in California and woodsmoke that fuels homes contributed to many of these spikes.
Increased heat, changes in climate patterns, drought and wildfires—all related to climate change—contributed to the extraordinarily high number of days with unhealthy particulate matter. As climate change continues, cleaning up these pollutants will become even more challenging. More must be done to address climate change and to protect communities from the growing risks to public health. This year’s report covered the three warmest years in global history and demonstrates the increased risk of harm from air pollution that comes despite other protective measures being in place.
Act to Protect Our Health
Our nation’s leaders need to step up to protect the health of all Americans. This report shows that Americans are already experiencing worsened ozone and particle pollution due to warmer temperatures and increased wildfires. The American Lung Association calls for the Administration and Congress to adopt science-based solutions to reduce emissions that are causing climate change and to ensure that no community near a polluting source gets left behind. The American Lung Association also calls on states and local governments to develop strong plans to reduce carbon pollution from power plants and protect public health.
Action taken now can help prevent the worst health impacts of climate change.
Everyone has the right to breathe healthy air, and the American Lung Association continues to fight for safeguards that ensure cleaner, healthier air for all Americans.
You can help! Join us in the effort to make sure every breath you take is a healthy one.