I can think of several people with whom I work or with whom my children play who have asthma. You probably know someone with asthma, or you have asthma yourself. It seems normal now, but I don’t recall knowing anyone with asthma when I was growing up. That’s not much of a scientific study, but it does accurately reflect what has been a dramatic change in respiratory health in our country—particularly if you live in the wrong city.
Breathing is a lot more dangerous today than it was a generation ago. While the worst impacts of climate change will happen in the next generation and beyond, today’s polluted air is shortening our lives and reducing the quality of our children’s lives. The American Lung Association has just released its annual “State of the Air” report, with a listing of the best and worst areas of the country for breathing. The 2010 report provides detailed information on levels of ozone and particle pollution in cities and counties, and the impacts of this type of air pollution.
There has been regulation of this pollution in recent years, and there is some good news:
- The State of the Air 2010 finds great progress in cutting year-round particle pollution, compared to the 2009 report. Thanks to reductions in emissions from coal-fired power plants and the transition to cleaner diesel fuels and engines, cleaner air shows up repeatedly in the monitoring data, especially in the eastern U.S. Twenty of the 25 metropolitan areas with the worst year-round pollution reported much lower levels of particle pollution in State of the Air 2010 compared to the 2009 report.
- Fourteen of the 25 most polluted metropolitan areas reported fewer days of unhealthy ozone levels on average in the 2010 report compared to the 2009 report. Ten metropolitan areas had higher averages and one remained unchanged.
The cleanest cities:
Fargo-Wahpeton, ND-MN and Lincoln, NE, emerged as the cleanest cities in the U.S, the only cities to appear on all three lists of cleanest cities. Twelve cities ranked cleanest for both particle pollution measures, though not for ozone: Amarillo, TX; Bangor, ME; Billings, MT; Cape Coral-Ft. Myers, FL; Cheyenne, WY; Ft. Collins-Loveland, CO; Pueblo, CO; Salinas, CA; San Luis Obispo-Paso Robles, CA; Santa Fe-Espanola, NM; Sarasota-Bradenton-Punta Gorda, FL; and Tucson, AZ. Five were among the cleanest cities for ozone and for one of the two particle pollution measures: Bismarck, ND; Brownsville-Harlingen-Raymondville, TX; Duluth, MN-WI; Honolulu, HI; and Port St. Lucie-Sebastian-Vero Beach, FL.
There remain very serious air pollution problems in many cities and counties throughout the country. Who is at risk?
Anyone living in an area with a high level of particle pollution is at risk. People at the greatest risk from particle pollution exposure include those with lung disease such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema; people with sensitive airways, where exposure to particle pollution can cause wheezing, coughing and respiratory irritation; the elderly; people with heart disease; and children. New research points to ever-larger groups at higher risk, including diabetics, and most recently, women over 50.
The ALA addresses the issue of children:
Children may look like miniature adults, but they’re not. Air pollution is especially dangerous to them because their lungs are growing and because they are so active. Just like the arms and legs, the largest portion of a child’s lungs will grow long after he or she is born. Eighty percent of their tiny air sacs develop after birth. Those sacs, called the alveoli, are where the life-sustaining transfer of oxygen to the blood takes place. The lungs and their alveoli aren’t fully grown until children become adults. In addition, the body’s defenses that help adults fight off infections are still developing in young bodies. Children have more respiratory infections than adults, which also seems to increase their susceptibility to air pollution.
With the risks from airborne pollution so great, the American Lung Association seeks to inform people who may be in danger. Many people are at greater risk because of their age or because they have asthma or other chronic lung, cardiovascular disease or diabetes. Here are the numbers of people in each at-risk group:
People with Asthma—Approximately 3.9 million children and over 10.7 million adults with asthma live in parts of the United States with very high levels of ozone. Nearly 4.6 million adults and nearly 1.7 million children with asthma live in areas with high levels of short-term particle pollution. Nearly 1.8 million adults and over 721,000 children with asthma live in counties with unhealthful levels of year-round particle pollution.
Older and Younger—Over 19.8 million adults age 65 and over and nearly 41.7 million children age 18 and under live in counties with unhealthful ozone levels. Nearly 8.2 million seniors and over 17.6 million children live in counties with unhealthful short-term levels of particle pollution. Over 3.1 million seniors and nearly 7.7 million children live in counties with unhealthful levels of year-round particle pollution.
Chronic Bronchitis and Emphysema—Over 5.4 million people with chronic bronchitis and nearly 2.1 million with emphysema live in counties with unhealthful ozone levels. Nearly 2.3 million people with chronic bronchitis and over 845,000 with emphysema live in counties with unhealthful levels of short-term particle pollution. Nearly 1.0 million people with chronic bronchitis and more than 330,000 with emphysema live in counties with unhealthful year-round levels of particle pollution.
Cardiovascular Disease—Nearly 18.6 million people with cardiovascular diseases live in counties with unhealthful levels of short-term particle pollution; nearly 7.4 million live in counties with unhealthful levels of year-round particle pollution. Cardiovascular diseases include coronary heart disease, heart attacks, strokes, hypertension and angina pectoris.
Diabetes—Nearly 4.5 million people with diabetes live in counties with unhealthful levels of short-term particle pollution; nearly 1.9 million live in counties with unhealthful levels of year-round particle pollution. Research indicates that because diabetics are already at higher risk of cardiovascular disease, they may face increased risk due to the impact of particle pollution on their cardiovascular systems.
Poverty—Over 20.8 million people with incomes meeting the federal poverty definition live in counties with unhealthful levels of ozone. Over 9.8 million people in poverty live in counties with unhealthful levels of short-term particle pollution, and nearly 4.4 million live in counties with unhealthful year-round levels of particle pollution. Evidence shows that people who have low incomes may face higher risk from air pollution.
Many major challenges require the Administration and Congress to take steps to protect the health of the public. Here are a few that the American Lung Association calls for to improve the air we all breathe.
- Clean up dirty power plants.
- Clean up the existing fleet of dirty diesel vehicles and heavy equipment.
- Strengthen the ozone standards.
- Strengthen the particle pollution standards.
- Clean up harmful emissions from tailpipes in cars.
As individual citizens can do a great deal to help reduce air pollution outdoors as well. Simple, but effective ways include—
- Drive less.
- Don’t burn wood or trash.
- Make sure your local school system requires clean school buses,
- Get involved.
- Use less electricity
- Send a message to decision makers.
The U.S. cities with the dirtiest air:
U.S. Cities Most Polluted by Year-Round Particle Pollution
1 Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale, AZ
2 Bakersfield, CA
3 Los Angeles-Long Beach-Riverside, CA
3 Visalia-Porterville, CA
5 Pittsburgh-New Castle, PA
6 Fresno-Madera, CA
7 Birmingham-Hoover-Cullman, AL
8 Hanford-Corcoran, CA
9 Cincinnati-Middletown-Wilmington, OH-KY-IN
9 St. Louis-St. Charles-Farmington, MO-IL
11 Charleston, WV
11 Weirton-Steubenville, WV-OH
14 Louisville-Jefferson County-Elizabethtown-Scottsburg, KY-IN
14 Modesto, CA
16 Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Gainesville, GA-AL 5
16 Houston-Baytown-Huntsville, TX
16 Huntington-Ashland, WV-KY-OH
19 Cleveland-Akron-Elyria, OH
19 Macon-Warner Robins-Fort Valley, GA
Most Ozone-Polluted Cities
1 Los Angeles-Long Beach-Riverside, CA
2 Bakersfield, CA
3 Visalia-Porterville, CA
4 Fresno-Madera, CA
5 Sacramento–Arden-Arcade–Yuba City, CA-NV
6 Hanford-Corcoran, CA
7 Houston-Baytown-Huntsville, TX
8 San Diego-Carlsbad-San Marcos, CA
9 San Luis Obispo-Paso Robles, CA
10 Charlotte-Gastonia-Salisbury, NC-SC
11 Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale, AZ
12 Merced, CA
13 Dallas-Fort Worth, TX
14 Knoxville-Sevierville-La Follette, TN
15 El Centro, CA
16 New York-Newark-Bridgeport, NY-NJ-CT-PA
16 Washington-Baltimore-Northern Virginia, DC-MD-VA-WV
18 Cincinnati-Middletown-Wilmington, OH-KY-IN
19 Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Gainesville, GA-AL
19 Birmingham-Hoover-Cullman, AL