Majority of Americans live in counties with dirty air — study

Source: Sean Reilly, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, April 22, 2016

More than half of the United States’ population — or 166 million people — live in counties with unhealthy levels of air pollution, the American Lung Association said in findings released yesterday.

Even so, the advocacy group’s latest “State of the Air” report offers grounds for optimism, noting that most cities showed “strong improvement” in reducing levels of ground-level ozone and fine particle matter.

Sixteen of the nation’s 25 worst sites for year-round particle pollution — a diverse grouping that includes Los Angeles-Long Beach, the tri-state area around Pittsburgh, and Fairbanks, Alaska — registered their lowest levels in the 17 years that the lung association has been compiling the report, for example.

“What this tells us is that the Clean Air Act is working,” Paul Billings, the group’s senior vice president for advocacy, said in an interview. The report specifically credits steps to cut power plant emissions for the reductions in year-round particles and ozone, along with the continuing phaseout of older, more heavily polluting diesel engines.

But many cities, especially in the West, suffered more spikes in short-term particle pollution, with seven of the most polluted cities registering their highest average number of unhealthy days ever reported, the organization found.

The report attributes the increase in part to drought conditions that may have led to more dust and wildfires; it cites those forces as evidence that climate change is adding to the challenge of protecting public health.

Only four areas — Honolulu; Salinas, Calif.; Burlington-South Burlington, Vt.; and Elmira-Corning, N.Y. — made the group’s “cleanest cities” list.

This year’s findings, based on a rolling average of U.S. EPA air quality monitoring data from 2012 to 2014, are not comparable to those from last year because researchers incorporated the agency’s more stringent 70 parts per billion ozone standard set last October, Billings said.

Last year’s report, which used the previous 75 ppb benchmark, said that almost 139 million people — about 44 percent of the population — lived in areas with unhealthily high levels of ozone and particle pollution.

By coincidence, this year’s report arrives as a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee could soon seek to advance H.R. 4775, a bill introduced last month by Rep. Pete Olson (R-Texas) to roll back implementation of the new 70 ppb ozone standard into the next decade (Greenwire, April 14). While Olson and other supporters say the new benchmark will hurt economic growth by making it more difficult for manufacturers and other businesses to get permits, Billings called it “short-sighted” and “reckless” for Congress to be considering the measure.