New Report Shows Nearly 40% of Americans Are Living in Areas with Air Quality Issues

New Report Shows Nearly 40% of Americans Are Living in Areas with Air Quality Issues

Bad air quality days aren’t just an occasional annoyance. Exposure to unhealthy air has been linked with stroke, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and ischemic heart disease. The World Health Organization says it’s also a risk for all-cause mortality. A new report shows that more than 130 million Americans may need to be concerned with such exposure.

The American Lung Association recently released its annual State of the Air Report, which the organization has been compiling for 25 years. This year, 131.2 million Americans – or 39% of the population – were found to live in areas with unhealthy levels of ozone or particle pollution, an increase of 11.7 million people over last year.

According to the organization, this increase is due to climate change-induced issues like extreme heat, drought, and wildfires, but also because this year’s report also included the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s new more protective national air quality standard for year-round fine particle pollution levels. This year’s report used that, along with ozone and short-term particle pollution figures from official monitoring sites across the country.

Paul Billings, National Senior Vice President of Public Policy at the American Lung Association, says, "When we started doing ‘State of the Air’ in 2000, I never imagined that in the 25th edition we would be reporting that more than 100 million people are still breathing unhealthy air. It’s unacceptable."

The report also turned up some inequities, including that though people of color make up only 41.6% of the population, they’re also 52% of the people living in a county with at least one failing grade. Additionally, in counties that failed all three categories, 63% of the population is comprised of people of color.

With poor air quality days more detrimental to people with certain health conditions, the report also included data on how many such Americans faced outsized impacts. The report shows that roughly 11.7 million children and adults with asthma live in counties with at least one failing grade, along with 6 million people with COPD. Further, there were more than 1.4 million pregnancies recorded in 2022 in such counties.

The region in which a person lived also impacted how much air pollution they experienced. The American Lung Association says that though there have been policies put into place to reduce emissions, they come at the same time that climate change is boosting issues like drought and wildfires. This means states in the west are experiencing worse air issues than those elsewhere. According to the report, only four large counties east of the Mississippi River had failing grades for short-term fine particle pollution, compared with 108 out west. Of the 30 counties that received failing grades in all three categories, 29 are in the west. Twenty-two of those are in California.

As for how to address these issues, the American Lung Association offers some suggestions. Those include pushing the EPA to set a stronger ozone standard and encouraging Congress to defend the Clean Air Act. Meanwhile, they say states should implement the EPA’s new clean air protections and accelerate clean energy production. As individuals, we can lower our own contributions to air pollution by driving less, conserving energy, and avoiding burning.

You can read the whole report here.

Michelle Milliken

Michelle has a journalism degree and has spent more than seven years working in broadcast news. She's also been known to write some silly stuff for humor websites. When she's not writing, she's probably getting lost in nature, with a fully-stocked backpack, of course.

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