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U.S. Air Quality Is Headed the Wrong Way

Health + Wellness
Smog over Los Angeles. Westend61 / Getty Images

After four decades of improving air quality, the U.S. has started to take a step backwards, as the number of polluted days has ticked upwards over the last two years, the Associated Press reported.


Federal data shows there were 15 percent more days with unhealthy air over the U.S. in 2017 and 2018 than there were on average from 2013 through 2016, according to the AP. In that four-year span, Americans had the fewest number of polluted days since 1980.

President Trump has claimed that air quality is improving under his watch, saying earlier this month, "We have the cleanest air in the world, in the United States, and it's gotten better since I'm president." Yet, the facts tell a different story.

World Health Organization data says otherwise. When looking at fine particulate matter, a key to air pollution, the U.S. ranks tenth in the world, well below several European countries, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, as the New York Times reported.

"We do not have the cleanest air and we have not crossed the finish line when it comes to pollution," said former Obama U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Chief Gina McCarthy, now director of the Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard School of Public Health, as the AP reported.

Fine particulate matter is especially relevant after the EPA rolled back the Obama-era Clean Power Plan Wednesday, as EcoWatch reported. Fine particulate matter is a byproduct of the burning that frequently comes from power plants, engine exhaust and wildfires. It is also hazardous to human health, leading to asthma and respiratory inflammation, and increasing the risk for lung cancer, heart attack and stroke, according to the New York Times.

Furthermore, EPA data found there were significantly more polluted days each year of Mr. Trump's than in any year of President Obama's second term, according to the AP. And the worst of the bad days jumped even more than the 15 percent rise in unhealthy air. On average, there were nearly 140 times, in 2017 and 2018, when a city's air pollution reached "very unhealthy" and "hazardous" levels with the air quality index greater than 200. That's more than two-and-a-half times the average of nearly 55 from 2013 to 2016, the AP reported.

"Today it feels like the future of our kids and our country is at stake," said McCarthy.

Federal regulations since the Clean Air Act of 1970 that limit the emissions of certain chemicals and soot from factories, cars, and trucks helped dramatically improve air quality. In fact, a recent study, found that air pollution related deaths fell by about 30 percent in the two decades between 1990 and 2010.

Yet, air pollution is still a scourge. EPA data says that more than 110,000 million Americans live in counties with unhealthy levels of air pollution, according to the New York Times. And one recent study found that air pollution in the U.S. led to 107,000 premature deaths and cost the country $866 billion in 2011. Of the early deaths, 57 percent were caused by energy consumption — 28 percent were transportation related, 14 percent were from coal-fired and gas power plants, while 15 percent were caused by agricultural activities like manure storage, as CNN reported.

"Cars and trucks are much cleaner than they were, power plants are cleaner, industrial operations are cleaner," said Paul Billings, a representative of the American Lung Association, to the New York Times. "But cleaner air is not clean air."

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A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

Michael Schade / Twitter

At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.