US Air Quality Improves, But Polluted Air Still Threatens Millions

Air quality continues to improve in the United States, but more than 40% of people still live in counties with unsafe levels of air pollutants. (Image: Lee Pettet/

Despite US air quality being the cleanest it has been in the 13 years since the American Lung Association began tracking it, more than 40% of people—about 127 million individuals—still live in counties with unhealthy levels of either ozone or particle pollution, according to the group’s “State of the Air 2012” report, released today.

The report grades cities and counties based, in part, on the color-coded Air Quality Index developed by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to alert the public to daily air conditions. The report uses EPA data collected in 2008 through 2010 from official monitors for ozone and particle pollution, the 2 most widespread types of air pollution. Counties were graded for ozone, year-round particle pollution, and short-term (24-hour) particle pollution levels. The report also used EPA’s calculations for year-round particle levels.

Air quality has improved significantly since 2001, the association found. Compared with 2001 levels, in 2010, ozone levels were 13% lower, year-round particle pollution was 24% lower, and short-term particle pollution was 28% lower. Of the 25 cities with the most ozone pollution, 22 improved their air quality since last year’s report.

However, the data show that although more than half of the country’s most smog-polluted cities experienced their best year yet, people living in these communities are still forced to breathe air that reaches dangerously polluted levels. Unsafe levels of either ozone or particle pollution are associated with coughing, asthma attacks, heart attacks, and premature death, the association noted.

Nearly 4 in 10 people (116.7 million) in the United States live in areas with unhealthful levels of ozone, the report found. In addition, about 1 in 6 (nearly 50 million) live in an area with unhealthful short-term levels of particle pollution, and almost 6.4 million live in an area with unhealthful year-round levels of particle pollution. More than 5.7 million live in 1 of the 6 counties where all 3—ozone and short-term and year-round levels of particle pollution—are at unsafe levels.

Los Angeles remained the city with the worst ozone pollution problem, and Bakersfield, Calif, had the worst levels of year-round and short-term particle pollution. Santa Fe, NM, ranked as having the best air quality in the nation.

Categories: Asthma, Cardiovascular Disease/Myocardial Infarction, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, Pulmonary Diseases