The American Lung Association’s annual “State of the Air” report found that 125 million Americans live in counties with unhealthful levels of either ozone or particle pollution.
While that number has decreased from the previous report, and the report card found continued improvement in air quality, it was found that there is a continued increase in dangerous spikes in particle pollution.
The 2017 report, released April 19, uses air quality data from 2013 to 2015, according to Janice Nolen, report lead author and assistant vice president for national policy for the American Lung Association. The data is collected through air quality monitors managed by states, cities, counties, tribes and federal agencies.
“The results are an amazing testimony to how effective the Clean Air Act has been at reducing pollution across the nation,” Nolen said. “But we still have a lot of challenges ahead and much further to go.”
The spikes in particle pollution were largely due to temperature inversions as well as an increase of drought that led to wildfires. While wildfires created harmful particle pollution, temperature increases work to trap pollutants in the air.
The global temperature has not been a friend to those fighting against pollution over the past few years. The annual global temperature record has been broken over the past three consecutive years (2014, 2015 and 2016), according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
In addition, 2013, 2014 and 2015 yielded some of the worst drought years that Western states, such as California, have endured.
Between the drought and temperature spikes in California, the 2017 report showed that the state continues to experience a severe problem with ozone and particle pollution. Year after year, California cities dominate the report for areas that experienced the most short-term particle pollution, the most year-round particle pollution, as well as the most ozone-polluted cities.
For all but one report, Los Angeles has been the most polluted city for ozone, and this year was no exception, according to Nolen. However, Nolen said there are some small victories for California. On this report, Los Angeles reached its lowest levels of ozone yet.
“That’s a big statement of progress,” Nolen said.
At present, 76.54 percent of California is experiencing no drought whatsoever, according to the United States Drought Monitor. That number one year ago was only 3.55 percent of the state. It is predicted that the state’s unusually wet winter will help the state with air pollution this year, but that data will not be analyzed for another few years.
There were six cities found to have no days when ozone or particle pollution reached unhealthy levels and had the lowest year-round levels of particle pollution. Wilmington, North Carolina, was the lone newcomer to this list.
“Wilmington is a good example of how cleaning up the power plants in the eastern half of the country has helped reduce pollution,” Nolen said.
Breathing either ozone or particle pollution lodges these pollutants into one’s lungs and can shorten one’s life by weeks or even months. The deadly pollutants can cause an array of health problems including asthma attacks, lung cancer and cardiovascular harm such as heart attacks.
“The more that we look beyond the lungs, the more harm we’re finding from breathing air pollution for long periods of time,” Nolen said.
The lungs develop until a person is fully grown, so children and teenagers who live in highly polluted areas are constantly at risk of a variety of health issues. After age 65, the lungs start to weaken, making anyone over that age at greater risk of health issues.
“Even healthy adults who work or exercise outdoors can be affected,” Nolen said.
Those with low income are especially affected as they tend to live in areas or near sources that are more heavily polluted.
Going forward, Nolen said that to see continued progress the Clean Air Act must remain a strong tool at environmentalists disposal. Mitigating climate change must also be a top priority, he said.
"If we aren’t dealing with climate change, we aren’t going to be able to reduce the pollution that we need to reduce in order to protect people,” Nolen said.
To view the report and check the quality of air in your local community, visit stateoftheair.org.