Nearly 120 million people in US exposed to unhealthy levels of soot and smog – report

American Lung Association’s study also found great disparity between coasts, with 10 of 11 most polluted counties in California

The climate crisis has upended progress on improving air quality, with one in three Americans currently living in areas with harmful levels of pollutants known to increase the risk of medical emergencies, pregnancy complications and premature death, new research reveals.

Almost 120 million people in the US are still exposed to unhealthy levels of soot and smog, according to the annual report by the American Lung Association (ALA), which found that people of color are almost four times more likely to live in the most polluted places than white Americans.

The extent to which access to clean air is racialized is stark; people of color account for 54% of those living in counties with failing air quality, despite accounting for just over 40% of the general population.

The zip code lottery spotlights decades of racist housing and environmental policies, which have incentivized and enabled polluting infrastructure like highways and railroads, fossil fuel projects and manufacturing plants to be located close to Black, Latin and Indigenous communities.

And despite overall improvements in air quality and pollution-related deaths over the past 50 years, the report also highlights a widening disparity between air quality in eastern and western states, especially for soot particles – scientifically known as fine particulate matter or PM2.5.

Ten of the 11 most polluted counties are in California where the climate breakdown is fueling wildfires and rising temperatures that are undermining efforts to improve air quality in places like Fresno, San Bernardino, Tulare and Los Angeles.

“It is striking and distressing that 120 million people are still at risk from unhealthy air pollution, said Katherine Pruitt, lead author and the ALA’s national senior policy director. “Since around 2017, heat and drought driven by climate change has been undoing some of the progress that we should have made and been able to retain.”

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was mandated by the 1970 Clean Air Act to set health-based limits for six toxins: fine particulate matter, ozone, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and lead. Since then, overall emissions have fallen by 78%, according to the EPA, yet progress has stalled and poor air quality continues to cut tens of thousands of lives short in the US every year.

“Since around 2017, heat and drought driven by climate change has been undoing some of the progress that we should have made and been able to retain” – Katherine Pruitt

Globally, air pollution is responsible for almost 7m premature deaths annually, according to the World Health Organization.

The ALA’s 24th annual state of the air report uses data from 2019 to 2021 to grade city- and county-wide exposure to the most widespread air toxins – ozone, AKA smog, and PM2.5 or soot – using three measures: year-round levels and daily spikes of PM2.5 and ground-level ozone pollution. (Seventy-one million people live in counties which do not monitor air quality and so are excluded from the report.)

Overall, almost 64 million people lived in areas that experienced unhealthy daily spikes in PM2.5 pollution, the highest number in a decade.

Eight of the 10 worst performing counties for daily particle spikes were in California which in 2021 recorded almost 9,000 wildfires – a major source of these microscopic particles which are blown for miles and can trigger asthma attacks, heart attacks and strokes, as well as lung cancer. Other sources include fossil fuel-powered cars and trucks, power plants, wood-burning stoves and agricultural burns.

Pittsburgh and Lancaster in Pennsylvania are the two worst metro areas for daily PM2.5 spikes east of the Mississippi River. While several urban, industrialised eastern and midwestern states such as New Jersey, New York and Ohio which once dominated the ALA dirtiest air list, have cut emissions.skip past newsletter promotion

Ground ozone – or smog – is a potent respiratory irritant emitted by fossil fuel- powered vehicles, oil refineries and chemical plants, and can cause a sunburn type of effect on the lungs. Inhaling smog can cause breathlessness, coughing and asthma attacks, as well as cutting life expectancy. Higher temperatures driven by the climate breakdown facilitates the formation of ozone – and makes it harder to clean up.

Nationwide, 103 million people – including 24 million children – are exposed to unhealthy smog levels, a staggering number, yet almost 20% less than reported last year. Los Angeles is the country’s smoggiest city by a long way, but the top 10 also includes Phoenix, Denver, Houston and Salt Lake City.

There is hope of fighting back against the climate-fueled regression.

Despite little progress in curtailing fossil fuel extraction, incentives to electrify the transport system in the Inflation Reduction Act plus several proposals by the EPA to tighten the outdated smog and soot standards and mandate lower emissions from vehicles and power plants are in the works.

Pruitt said: “The current standards need to be stronger to protect public health. If the EPA acts to reduce community level exposure, that along with proposals for new regulations to reduce emissions could be hugely significant in cleaning up pollution sources and reducing health inequities.”

Meanwhile, the report ranks Wilmington, North Carolina; Bangor, Maine; Lincoln, Nebraska; Rochester, New York and Honolulu, Hawaii among the country’s cleanest cities.

Nearly 120 million people in US exposed to unhealthy levels of soot and smog – report | US news | The Guardian

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