Nearly 40% of Americans Are Breathing Unhealthy Air. Is Your Hometown on the List?

Over 130 million people live in areas with poor air quality, the American Lung Association says

<p>Getty</p> Stock image of smoke polluting the air.


Stock image of smoke polluting the air.
  • A new report from the American Lung Association says that 131.2 million Americans are living in areas with poor air quality

  • That’s nearly 40% of Americans, a sharp increase from last year’s report

  • Particle pollution and ozone data was used in the report, which linked unhealthy air quality to asthma, lung cancer, and more

Nearly 40% of Americans are breathing unhealthy air — putting them at risk for lung diseases like asthma and cancer.

According to the American Lung Association’s annual “State of the Air” report, 131.2 million Americans live in an area where the air can be classified as unhealthy. That’s 11.7 million more than last year’s report, a “significant rise” in the number of people whose health is now at risk.

The organization looked at particle pollution and ozone data, and found that 65 million people live in areas with an F grade for pollution.

For particle pollution, Bakersfield, Calif., topped the list, followed by Fresno-Madera-Hanford, Calif., which is approximately 82 miles away.

Fairbanks, Ala., Eugene-Springfield, Ore., and Visalia, Calif., rounded out the top five for particle pollution.

<p>AP Photo/Gary Kazanjian</p> Stock image of Bakersfield, Calif.

AP Photo/Gary Kazanjian

Stock image of Bakersfield, Calif.

As the report notes, “Researchers estimate that [fine particles from burning wood or fossil fuels] is responsible for nearly 48,000 premature deaths in the United States every year.”

“Exposure to even low levels of fine particles can be deadly,” the report says, increasing risks of severity of asthma attacks, as well as heart attacks and strokes.

The data linking air quality to poor health outcomes piled up, with the report noting: “More than 55,000 people diagnosed with lung cancer in 2020 live in counties that received an F for at least one pollutant, and about 15,200 people diagnosed with lung cancer live in counties failing all three measures.”

Some of the same California cities with the most particle pollution also made the top five for ozone pollution as well.

Long Beach-Los Angeles topped the list, with Visalia, Bakersfield, and Fresno-Madera-Hanford following. Rounding out the top 5 was Phoenix-Mesa, Ariz.

“Exposure to unhealthy levels of ozone air pollution continues to make breathing difficult for more Americans across the country than any other single pollutant,” the report says.

<p>Getty</p> Stock image of a woman using an asthma inhaler.


Stock image of a woman using an asthma inhaler.

Related: Calif. Wildfire Near Yosemite Still Zero Percent Contained as Thousands Are Displaced by Evacuation

Across the board, the report found racial disparities in the populations living in areas with unhealthy air versus those in areas with better quality air.

“Although people of color make up 41.6% of the overall population of the U.S., they are 52% of the people living in a county with at least one failing grade,” the report said.

“In the counties with the worst air quality that get failing grades for all three measures of air pollution, 63% of the nearly 44 million residents are people of color, compared to 37% who are white.”

And people of color are 2.3 times more likely to live in an area with 3 failing grades for air quality.

The report also noted that there’s a marked difference in air quality based on which side of the Mississippi River you lived, pointing to "policy-driven reductions in emissions" versus climate-change induced events that triggered low air quality in the west.

The report noted that “extreme heat, drought and wildfires are contributing to a steady increase in deadly particle pollution, especially in the western U.S.”

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As a result, "in this year’s report, only 4 large counties in three states east of the Mississippi River, earned failing grades for daily spikes in fine particle pollution, compared to 108 counties in 16 western states.”

Related: 23 Shocking Photos of Our Planet in Danger

“The amount of pollution that is being produced by the typical things that you think of — cars, smokestacks, power plants — the Clean Air Act has done a really good job of bringing that down,” Katherine Pruitt, senior director of Nationwide Clean Air Policy at the ALA, who worked on the new report, told Health

However, she added, “What hasn’t really changed is greenhouse gasses” which “are contributing to global climate change and starting to reverse the improvements [we were seeing].”

“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,” said Paul Billings, National Senior Vice President, Public Policy, for the American Lung Association.

“It’s unacceptable.” 

Top 10 Most Polluted Places in the U.S. to Live, by County

1. San Bernardino, Calif.
2. Riverside, Calif.
3. Los Angeles
4. Tulare, Calif.
5. Kern, Calif.
6. Fresno, Calif.
7. Maricopa, Ariz.
8. Jefferson, Colo.
9. Placer, Calif.
10. Douglas, Colo.

Click here for the full State of the Air report — and to see where your hometown lands on the list.

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