Air Pollution: Almost Half of U.S. Breathes Unhealthy Levels

Air pollution

The American Lung Association (ALA) has collected data over the last two years that present some unsettling news about the air most Americans breathe.  The report, released Wednesday, found that almost half of the U.S. population breathes air with unhealthy levels of air pollution.

As part of its annual study on U.S. air quality, the ALA collected data between 2010 and 2012 to produce the report, finding that smog levels have gotten worse over time in almost every major city in the United States.  Almost 148 million Americans (about 47 percent) are living in places where smog and soot levels are considered to be a threat to health.

Topping the charts with the worst air pollution is not surprisingly Los Angeles, known in popular culture for its traffic and smog.  According to the ALA report, large metropolitan areas such as New York City, Washington D.C., and Chicago also weighed in with high levels of smog and soot in the air.

A culprit people may not first assume in this disturbing report is weather.  Hotter temperatures exacerbate issues arising from air pollutants.

According to the ALA report, warmer summer temperatures over the past couple of years were a factor contributing to higher ozone readings. Sunlight and heat increase these risks.

Ozone, another name for smog, is the most prominent pollutant lingering in the air, and is more apt to form with spikes in temperature.  As climate change threatens to raise the temperature in areas that do not usually see record-breaking warmth, so plummets the possibility to clean up the air pollution.

The ALA report arrives on the heels of a supreme court endorsement of EPA efforts to curb the amounts of air pollution drifting across states.  The ALA supports the EPA’s effort to advocate for more strict air pollution standards, attempting to set controls on industrial carbon dioxide emissions.

Interestingly,  the Obama administration does not seem to think it is a priority to address the fact that more than half of the U.S. population is breathing unhealthy levels of air pollution.  President Obama went against the efforts of the EPA in 2011, rejecting a proposal to lower the standard allowable amounts of particulate pollutants. The ALA and other environmental groups sued the Obama administration to fight their case. A scientific panel will likely respond this summer to again recommend stricter controls for the protection of the public’s health.

Although air pollution is not visible and apparently not a priority for the Obama administration, it is constantly on the move, and does present some daunting health risks for the global population and the environment.  Even at low levels, smog and soot particles are pretty harmful.  Research has accumulated over the last ten years that links air pollution to heart disease, respiratory illnesses, and lung cancer.

This is not just an American problem, either. Countries like India, China and the United Kingdom have all debated on the levels of air pollution thickening in the environment and what to do about it.

Back here in the U.S., places like California are struggling to determine what can be controlled.  Pollution control officers in the state said earlier this month that high heat and wildfires are an important factor.  The smoke and  resulting air particulates from wildfires could reverse decades of improvements in air quality.  A large percentage of wildfires are human-caused, so there is opportunity for some teachable moments through wildfire prevention.

Despite the troubling state of things suggested by this week’s ALA report, data also suggested that the needle may be moving due to some cities’ efforts to combat the issue.  Eighteen of the 25 major U.S. cities with the worst air pollution saw a decrease in air pollutants because of efforts to cut emissions for coal-fired power plants.  Although Los Angeles has the highest level of particle pollutants, the ALA report indicates that it is among thirteen of the major cities to register the lowest levels ever.  Nonetheless, there is still a lot of work to be done.  These thirteen cities are still not meeting national standards for air particle pollutants.

California also boasts some progressive municipalities that have been proactively tackling environmental health issues such as air pollutants.  Yolo County, located just west of Sacramento County, produces more than one and a half times more energy from solar panels than it uses, topping the EPA list of green power partners.  Its energy conservation efforts within county buildings over the last two decades have reduced  carbon emissions by more than 1,200 tons, and they also have a climate action plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions back to 1990 levels by 2020.

There is hope to reverse the unsettling numbers that show almost half of the U.S. population is breathing unhealthy levels of air pollution. There is a wealth of best practices emerging and already available for U.S. cities to tap into in order to clear the air.

By Erica Salcuni

Sources:
Los Angeles Times
GreenBiz.com

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