State Of The Air 2011: Air Quality Report Reveals High Pollution Levels In U.S. Cities

How Bad Is The Air You Breathe?

NEW YORK -- The American Lung Association's newest State of the Air report is a bit like getting a 53 on your math test after you got a 49 on your last one. Yes, you've improved, but you’re still failing the class.

Though the report, released Wednesday, states that air quality has improved in some places, over 154 million people are still threatened by dangerously high pollution levels nationwide. Some cities, like Los Angeles and Pittsburgh, reduced their overall pollution levels, yet their year-round particle pollution levels are still higher than the national standard, and Los Angeles County is still ranked on all three “25 Most Polluted Counties” lists. In other words, things are improving, but they're still not good enough.

The 2011 State of the Air Report, which is based on data from 2007 to 2009, reports on levels of pollution from monitoring sites across the U.S. The report focuses on two specific types of pollution -- ozone and particle pollution -- because according to the ALA, these types are most responsible for the country's air pollution problem.

Ozone air pollution is different than the ozone layer found in the stratosphere, which provides a necessary barrier from the sun's harmful ultraviolet rays. Rather, ozone air pollution, which is found at ground level, is harmful to breathe and is the primary ingredient in smog. Contributors to ozone pollution include tailpipe and smokestack emissions.

The ALA has shown that breathing ozone pollution shortens lifespans. Studies have linked high ozone level exposure to death from cardiac arrhythmia, heart attacks, and respiratory diseases.

Particle pollution, meanwhile, is caused by a mix of particles found in the air we breathe. While we may be able to cough or sneeze to keep out larger particles, our natural defense mechanisms don’t protect us from the smaller ones, which are often one-seventh the diameter of a single human hair. These particles, produced by motor vehicles and burning fossil fuels in factories, can get trapped in the lungs or even pass into the bloodstream.

Year-round exposure to high levels of particle pollution has been linked to death from lung cancer and cardiovascular disease. Children have experienced slower lung function growth, and children living near roads with heavy traffic have been hospitalized for asthma attacks in increasing numbers. The California Air Resources Board estimates that over 9,000 people in the state die prematurely each year from breathing particle pollution.

Just how prevalent are these potentially life-shortening pollutants?

More than half of Americans live in regions with dangerous levels of air pollution, according to the report: “Almost 154.5 million Americans are living in the 366 counties where they are exposed to unhealthful levels of air pollution in the form of either ozone or short-term or year-round levels of particles,” it reads.

And nearly half (48.2 percent) of Americans live in areas with unhealthful ozone levels. 388 counties have levels that place residents at risk of decreased lung function and respiratory infections. Moreover, the report suggests that the number of people affected by this pollution is actually much larger than reported, since nearby counties without monitoring sites were not counted.

To counteract this problem, the American Lung Association has proposed lowering the air quality standard for ozone from 75 to 60 parts per billion. The EPA is expected to announce whether or not it will implement a more protective standard this summer.

With respect to particle pollution, meanwhile, eight cities had year-round levels above the national standard: Bakersfield, Calif.; Los Angeles; Phoenix, Ariz.; Visalia, Calif.; Hanford, Calif.; Fresno, Calif.; Pittsburgh; and Birmingham, Ala. On top of that, nearly 61 million Americans live in areas that experienced short, sustained periods of harmful spikes in particle pollution. These spikes can increase the risk of heart attacks, strokes, and early death. Sixteen of the cities that had the highest short-term levels of particle pollution received worse rankings in the report than they had in previous years.

The report states that people with asthma, diabetes and cardiovascular disease are most at risk of being affected by air pollution. (It should be noted that the ALA is not necessarily saying that air pollution causes these conditions, but rather that people who suffer from these conditions are at greater risk of being affected by them.) In Bakersfield, the city with the highest levels of particle pollution, there were over 16,000 cases of pediatric asthma, over 43,000 cases of adult asthma, and nearly 185,000 people with cardiovascular disease.

There were also 170,000 people living in poverty in Bakersfield -- and the report found that poorer people are often exposed to higher levels of pollutants. Janice Nolen, assistant vice president of national policy and advocacy for the ALA, explained the correlation in an interview with HuffPost. "Usually communities that surround power plants, or are near a major highway, tend to be lower income, less expensive property, than housing that is further away from those sources," she said. "It’s less challenging for an industry to build a plant near a poorer community than it is to build near a wealthy community.”

The report did contain a few bright spots. Some cities, like Honolulu, Hawaii, and Santa Fe, N.M., were ranked among the cleanest in the nation. Moreover, each of the 25 cities with the most ozone pollution improved their overall air quality since last year's report, and 15 of the 25 cities reported their best years yet. The improvements in these cities, which include Los Angeles, Houston, Philadelphia and New York City, were due partly to reductions in coal-fired power plant emissions and the transition to cleaner diesel fuels. Yet these examples were the exceptions, not the rule, in a report packed with bad news.

Nolen discussed the annual backlash the ALA faces when the State of the Air report is released. "We get criticized for ... making the public aware of the air pollution in their community," she said. "Sometimes the fact that there still is an air pollution problem is not a message that people want to hear."

But hear it they must, especially at a time when members of Congress are targeting the Clean Air Act. Rather than supporting the EPA's efforts to decrease emissions of harmful pollutants, Congressional Republicans are fighting an amendment to the Clean Air Act that would implement long-overdue regulations. These rules would limit the amount of toxins emitted by coal-burning power plants, which the State of the Air report cites as one of the largest contributors to particle pollution, ozone pollution, and global warming. Another ALA report released earlier this year found that particle pollution is estimated to kill about 13,000 people per year. Yet Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), whose home state derives more than 90 percent of its power from coal, plans to introduce legislation to delay the amendment.

Meanwhile, House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) has made striking efforts to lessen the EPA's ability to enforce the Clean Air Act. With respect to Upton, Nolen said, "The American Lung Association is absolutely astonished that he does not seem to appreciate the significance of the Clean Air Act. The EPA just released a study looking at the last 20 years and estimated that last year alone, the standards put together under the Clean Air Act saved 160,000 lives."

The American Lung Association has offered the public a list of ways to help protect the Clean Air Act, and it suggests Americans contact politicians and officials at the EPA to express their concern. More information on this year's State of the Air report can be found here.

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