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7 Million More Americans Breathe Unhealthy Air Since Last 'State of the Air' Report

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Los Angeles-Long Beach, California is listed as the nation's smoggiest city. Pixabay

Seven million more Americans lived in areas with unhealthy levels of air pollution between 2015 and 2017 than between 2014 and 2016, and climate change is partly to blame, Time reported Wednesday.


The findings are part of the American Lung Association's State of the Air 2019 report, released Wednesday, which found that the number of days of record-breaking levels of particulate matter, or soot, pollution increased in many cities, as did the number of days of unhealthy ozone pollution, or smog, since its last report. In total, more than 141 million Americans live in counties that have recorded unhealthy levels of air pollution.

"The 20th annual 'State of the Air' report shows clear evidence of a disturbing trend in our air quality after years of making progress: In many areas of the United States, the air quality is worsening, at least in part because of wildfires and weather patterns fueled by climate change," American Lung Association President and CEO Harold Wimmer said in an email. "This increase in unhealthy air is eye-opening, and points to the reality that the nation must do more to protect the public from serious, even life-threatening harm. There is no clearer sign that we are facing new challenges than air pollution levels that have broken records tracked for the past twenty years, and the fact that we had more days than ever before when monitored air quality reached hazardous levels for anyone to breathe."

The 141 million people exposed to unhealthy air over the last two years is still less than the 166 million exposed between 2012 and 2014, Time reported, indicating that progress has been made. But there are concerns that Trump administration attempts to rollback emissions standards for automakers and coal plants could increase pollution levels.

The fight between California and Trump's U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over auto standards is given new urgency by the report, which found that most of the nation's smoggiest cities are in the Golden State.

"California's air quality is worsening despite having the strongest environmental regulations in the nation," John Balmes of the University of California-San Francisco at a press conference reported by USA Today. This is because of the state's topography, rising population and sunny weather, but air pollution would be far worse in the state without its tough laws, the Lung Association said.

Overall, the nation's smoggiest cities are:

  1. Los Angeles-Long Beach, California
  2. Visalia, California
  3. Bakersfield, California
  4. Fresno-Madera-Hanford, California
  5. Sacramento-Roseville, California
  6. San Diego-Chula Vista-Carlsbad, California
  7. Phoenix-Mesa, Arizona
  8. San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland, California
  9. Houston-The Woodlands, Texas
  10. New York-Newark, New York–New Jersey-Connecticut-Pennsylvania

The cities with the most year-round particulate matter pollution are:

  1. Fresno-Madera-Hanford, California
  2. Bakersfield, California
  3. Fairbanks, Alaska
  4. Visalia, California
  5. Los Angeles-Long Beach, California
  6. San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland, California
  7. Pittsburgh-New Castle-Weirton, Pennsylvania-Ohio-West Virginia
  8. El Centro, California
  9. Cleveland-Akron-Canton, Ohio
  10. Medford-Grants Pass, Oregon

And the cities with the most short-term particulate matter pollution are:

  1. Bakersfield, California
  2. Fresno-Madera-Hanford, California
  3. Fairbanks, Alaska
  4. San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland, California
  5. Missoula, Montana
  6. Yakima, Washington
  7. Los Angeles-Long Beach, California
  8. Salt Lake City-Provo-Orem, Utah
  9. Seattle-Tacoma, Washington
  10. Pittsburgh-New Castle-Weirton, Pennsylvania-Ohio-West Virginia

On the other extreme, the report also accounted for the nation's cleanest cities. The report sets a high bar for cleanliness. Cities must have no high ozone days, no high particulate matter days and rank in the lowest 25 cities for year-round particulate matter between 2015 and 2017. Only six cities qualified.

"Every American deserves to breathe healthy air that won't make them sick. The American Lung Association calls on the Administration and Congress to protect and prioritize Americans' health by taking urgent action to fight air pollution and address climate change," Wimmer said.

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Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.

That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.

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"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."

To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.


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