Report: Polluted air a reality for most Americans

i-25-traffic-largeWhat do driving, coal power plants and the health of your lungs and body have to do with one another?

Everything — as the American Lung Association’s (ALA) just released State of the Air 2010 report underscores.

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There’s good news and not so good news in this exhaustive annual report, which examines air quality in the United States.

The report finds that a decade of cleanup measures to reductions in emissions from coal-fired powered plants and the transition to cleaner diesel fuels and engines have paid off in cutting levels of deadly particle and ozone pollution, especially in eastern and midwestern U.S. cities, including Atlanta, Cincinnati, Cleveland, New York City, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C./Baltimore, Maryland.

Despite that progress, State of the Air 2010 reveals that more than half the population of the United States still suffers pollution levels that are too often dangerous to breathe. The report finds that unhealthy air remains a threat to the lives and health of more that 175 million people—roughly 58 percent of the population. And, despite progress in many places, the report finds that some cities, mostly in California, had air that was more polluted than in the previous report.

State of the Air 2010 proves with hard data that cleaning up air pollution produces healthier air.
— Mary H. Partridge, Chair, American Lung Association

“State of the Air 2010 proves with hard data that cleaning up air pollution produces healthier air,” said Mary H. Partridge, American Lung Association National Board Chair. “However, more needs to be done.”

The ALA is working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on additional measures that will require even greater clean up of power plants. It’s also calling for additional funding to install equipment to clean up the 20 million dirty diesel vehicles currently on the road.

The State of the Air report, found at, provides an annual national air quality “report card,” based on the color-coded Air Quality Index, to assign grades to counties. The 2010 report—the 11th annual release—uses the most recent quality-assured air pollution data, collected in 2006, 2007 and 2008. These data come from official monitors for the two most widespread types of pollution: ozone—or smog— and particle pollution—or soot. Particle pollution data are graded according to both year-round and short-term levels. The report ranks cities and counties based on their scores.

leaf-solar-rev-smallState of the Air 2010 includes for the first time population estimates for people living in poverty as a specific at-risk group. Research indicates that people living in lower socioeconomic conditions face greater risk from air pollution.

The largest examination of particle pollution mortality nationwide by Johns Hopkins University found in 2008 that low socioeconomic status consistently increased the risk of premature death from fine particle pollution among 13.2 million Medicare recipients. A 2008 study of Washington, DC, found that poor air quality and worsened asthma went hand-in-hand in areas where Medicaid enrollment was high.

“State of the Air uses the population data based on the federal poverty definition, but in reality so many more Americans today are low income—and at a greater risk from air pollution,” Partridge said.

Five cleanest U.S. cities for long-term particle pollution
1. Cheyenne, Wyo.
2. Santa Fe-Espanola, N.M.
3. Honolulu, Hawaii
4. Anchorage, Alaska
5. Great Falls, Mont.

One in 10 live where year-round particle pollution levels are unhealthy
Particle pollution—called fine particulate matter or PM 2.5—is a combination of tiny specks of soot, dust, and aerosols that are suspended in the air. Cities with problems with short-term levels have “spikes” in particle pollution that last anywhere from hours to days. Cities with year-round particle pollution face unhealthy levels day-in and day-out.

Numerous scientific studies have linked particle pollution exposure to a variety of problems, such as irritation of the airways, coughing, or difficulty breathing. It also causes irregular heartbeat, heart attacks and even premature death in people with heart or lung disease, according to Norman H. Edelman, M.D., Chief Medical Officer of the American Lung Association.

Five cleanest U.S. cities for ozone air pollution
1. Bismarck, N.D.
2. Brownsville-Harlingen-Raymondville, Texas
3. Coeur d’Alene, Idaho
4. Duluth, Minn.-Wis.
5. Fargo-Wahpeton, N.D.-Minn.

The Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale, Ariz. metropolitan area moved to the top of the list of cities most-polluted by year-round particle levels, while Bakersfield, Calif. ranked as the city having the most days of unhealthy short-term particle pollution. Nearly one-quarter of the people in the U.S.—almost 70.4 million—live where there are unhealthful short-term levels of particle pollution, while roughly one in ten people—23.8 million—live where there are unhealthful levels year-round.

“The more we learn about particle pollution, the more we know we need to act,” said Charles D. Connor, American Lung Association President and CEO.

Five U.S. cities most polluted by long-term particle pollution
1. Bakersfield, Calif.
2. Fresno-Madera, Calif.
3. Pittsburgh-Newcastle, Penn.
4. Los Angeles-Long Beach-Riverside, Calif.
5. Birmingham-Hoover-Cullman, Alabama.

More than half live where ozone pollution too high
State of the Air 2010 found that 14 of the 25 most ozone-polluted metropolitan areas had fewer average unhealthy days than in the previous report. Still, 167.3 million Americans remain exposed to unhealthy levels of the country’s most widespread outdoor pollutant, ozone.

Ground-level, ozone forms when nitrogen oxide gases and volatile organic compounds (carbon-containing chemicals that evaporate easily into the air, like gasoline vapors) from vehicle and industrial emissions react in the sunlight and heat.

“When you inhale ozone, it irritates your lungs, leaving them with something like a bad sunburn,” said Norman H. Edelman, M.D., Chief Medical Officer of the American Lung Association. “It causes health problems the day you breathe it in, and even days after. Ozone can cause wheezing, coughing, asthma attacks and even shorten your life.”

Five U.S. cities most polluted by ozone
1. Los Angeles-Long Beach-Riverside, Calif.
2. Bakersfield, Calif.
3. Visalia-Porterville, Calif.
4. Fresno-Madera, Calif.
5.Sacramento-Arden-Arcade-Yuba City, Calif.-Nev.

Los Angeles ranked worst for ozone levels. Although Los Angeles had slightly worse average levels than in the 2009 report, the metro area still reported its second lowest ozone levels since the Lung Association’s first report in 2000. All ten cities with worse ozone levels were in California.

“Reducing ozone to healthy levels and protecting all from this potentially deadly air pollutant requires individual action, tough state regulations and much stronger federal standards,” Partridge explained. “America still has a long way to go before all of us are breathing healthy air.”

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The American Lung Association is calling for Congress to pass the Clean Air Act Amendments of 2010, which will cut emissions from coal-fired power plants that create particle pollution and ozone.

“Americans can take steps today and every day that will improve air quality immediately and ultimately impact climate change as well,” Connor said. “Drive less. Don’t burn wood or trash. Use less electricity, and make sure your local school system requires clean school buses.”

Visit to search local air quality grades by zip code and to send messages to Congress and the Obama Administration to urge action to protect the air we breathe.

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