Philadelphia and Montgomery Counties receive grade F for air quality in the latest State of the Air report by the American Lung Association. The report reviews data from 2017, 2018 and 2019.
New research from the American Lung Association find that more than four in 10 people – a whopping 135 million in the US – live in counties with unhealthy levels of particle or ozone pollution.
In their 22nd annual “State of the Air” report, released on Wednesday, the group examined federal data on the two most widespread types of air pollution to create a comprehensive overview of toxic air across the country. The annual air quality “report card” identifies the parts of the country with the more polluted air, and gives them a letter grade (from A to F). This year, it also found that people of color were three times as likely to live in the nation’s most polluted places.
“It’s important for people to know the quality of the air they breathe,” says Katherine Pruitt, national senior director for policy at the American Lung Association. “We feel there are way more people compared to last year living in unhealthy places for particle pollution.”
For their analysis, researchers examined data collected by federal, state, and local and tribal governments from 2017, 2018, and 2019 – the three years with the most recent quality-assured air pollution data. The most widespread outdoor air pollutants, ozone pollution and particle pollution, were analyzed.
Cities with the worst, year-round particle pollution include Fairbanks, Alaska, and a slew of cities in California, including Los Angeles and Bakersfield. “California has, unfortunately, always struggled at the top of all of our lists,” Pruitt says. That might be surprising, considering California is known as an environmental leader when compared with other states. But the state has ideal conditions for bad air with lots of shipping, trucking and mountain ranges that create bowls where air pollution can be trapped. She adds that a key reason for the increase in air pollution was climate-change-fueled wildfires. “It’s like a perfect storm for air pollution.”
There are other ways a warming world is dirtying up the air. Ozone, commonly known as smog, is created when a combination of tailpipe, power plant and other health-harming emissions bake in sunlight and heat. “As the climate is starting to warm, we’re starting to see that the ozone is more likely to form,” Pruitt says, leading to more high ozone days, which leads to more adverse health consequences. Breathing polluted air for long periods of time can damage a person’s lungs and make it more difficult to fight respiratory disease, for instance.
The report’s findings – 135 million people live with dirty air – seem to be a slight improvement over last year, where 150 million people in the US were found to live in counties that flunked their air grade.
“Last year’s report was really quite bad,” Pruitt says. This year’s report did not look at data from 2017 to 2019, but the last three reports included the year 2016, “the hottest year on record. Getting rid of that really hot year, we had fewer places that had Fs for ozone compared to last year.”
This year’s state of the air report does not include 2020, when the pandemic idled swaths of the economy and consequently helped slash emissions. “We won’t know the impact of the pandemic on the air quality itself until our report next year,” Pruitt says, “It’s looking a lot more complicated than people thought it was last at this time. But we do know that people living in more polluted places are more likely to have bad outcomes from Covid-19.”
But Pruitt also points out that some trends are positive – thanks in part to the Clean Air Act, the principal piece of legislation responsible for reducing air pollution in the US since its passing in 1963. “It’s been subject to the vagaries of politics over the last 50 years,” Pruitt says. “We need to keep it intact.” Still, she adds, air quality standards for ozone and particle pollution are not strong enough to protect public health. The Trump administration relaxed the current standards.
“We’re asking the Biden administration to go back and re-evaluate those standards,” Pruitt says. “Because we believe they need to be strengthened.”