More than 40% of Americans breathe polluted air — study 

Source: Amanda Peterka, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, April 30, 2015

More than 40 percent of Americans live in areas that record high levels of air pollution, according to the American Lung Association’s annual “State of the Air” report released today.

Forty-four percent of the country, or 138.5 million people, live in areas with average levels of fine particle and ozone pollution above U.S. EPA standards, the report found. That’s a reduction from last year’s report, which found that 147 million people were breathing unhealthy air.

But the new report — which is based on average 2011-2013 data — found that progress was not shared equally throughout the country.

Although the eastern half of the country made great strides in reducing annual particle pollution during the study period, short-term episodes of high particle pollution emerged as a problem in the West, driven by drought and wildfires, according to the report.

And while many cities had fewer high-ozone days than in the previous report, 12 cities recorded more bad ozone days on average: Fresno, Calif.; Dallas-Forth Worth, Texas; Modesto-Merced, Calif.; Las Vegas; Phoenix; New York City; Tulsa, Okla.; Denver; El Centro, Calif.; Fort Collins, Colo.; Grand Rapids, Mich.; and South Bend, Ind.

“What we do see is you have a trend nationwide of year-round particles being improved and then some mixture of ozone in some places getting better, in some places not,” said Janice Nolen, assistant vice president of national policy at the American Lung Association, “and then short-term particles in several places, in the West especially, being really a problem this year.”

The report is the American Lung Association’s 16th annual look at pollution levels across the country. The results were based on EPA’s Air Quality System, which stores data from the nation’s network of ambient air quality monitors.

According to the results, six cities rank as the “cleanest cities” in the nation based on average pollution levels from 2011 to 2013, meaning they did not breach the EPA limits for ozone or short-term particle pollution and had low year-round particulate levels.

Those cities were: Bismarck, N.D.; Cape Coral-Fort Myers-Naples, Fla.; Elmira-Corning, N.Y.; Fargo-Wahpeton, N.D.-Minn.; Rapid City-Spearfish, S.D.; and Salinas, Calif.

Much of the eastern half of the country improved its year-round particle pollution levels through a combination of cleanup measures targeting power plants and emissions from diesel engines, according to the report.

But half a dozen cities in the West set records for their highest number of unhealthy particle pollution days during the study’s time period, the American Lung Association found.

“Continuing drought and heat may have increased the dust, grassfires and wildfires, while burning wood as a heat source appears to contribute to the problem in many smaller cities,” the report said.

Nolen said that the results in the West buttressed arguments in support of EPA’s Clean Power Plan to limit carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants.

“One of the things that we’ve seen in this report is the impact of climate and heat on some of these high-pollution days — things like the drought in the West in 2012, when we saw high levels of ozone partially because of the heat,” Nolen said. “These are things that we know communities are trying to control and address, but with a change in climate, it’s just going to be that much harder to clean it up.”

In the area of ground-level ozone, a key component of smoggy air, the report found that a warmer and drier summer in 2012 led to higher ozone readings generally, while a wetter 2013 helped areas in the East see reductions.

Los Angeles had its third-best three-year period since the report began but still ranked as the country’s most ozone-polluted city.

The American Lung Association said that the report’s results in the area of ozone were likely a conservative estimate of people breathing unhealthy air quality.

“One challenge is that many more people are actually at risk than even our estimates show,” said Harold Wimmer, national president and CEO of the group. “We use the current ozone standard as the basis of much of our assessment, but that standard is weak and out of date and does not reflect what we know harms children and people with lung disease.”

EPA is weighing whether to lower the national ozone standard to between 65 and 70 parts per billion (Greenwire, March 18). Industry groups have urged EPA to keep the standard at the current level, arguing that a tighter standard would impose high compliance costs.

Nolen said that, along with demonstrating the need for stringent air quality protections, the goal of the report was to raise public awareness of bad air quality.

“Our primary audience is the public. We want to make sure that they understand that air quality is something they need to be paying attention to,” she said. “As we like to say, someone in everyone’s family is at risk from breathing unhealthy levels of air pollution.”