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Half of Americans live in areas with harmful levels of polluted air, report says

Overall, Minnesota received good marks for air quality. The state’s “star” in the report, however, was Duluth.

Los Angeles
California is home to seven of the 10 most ozone-polluted cities, with Los Angeles topping that list.
REUTERS/Fred Prouser

Almost half of Americans — 150 million people — live in cities and counties where air pollution is at levels that threaten their health, according to the 21st annual “State of the Air” report by the American Lung Association (ALA).

That’s 20 percent more than the 125 million Americans who were living in such areas just a few years ago.

Climate change and the Trump administration’s undermining of environmental statutes and regulations are major reasons air pollution is worsening across the country, the report says.

Air pollution is a major risk factor not only for respiratory illnesses such as asthma and emphysema, but also for heart attacks, stroke and lung cancer. One study estimated that polluted air is responsible for  200,000 early deaths each year in the United States.

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The ALA report, published Monday, bases its findings on federal, state and local data collected during 2016-2018. It focuses on the two most common outdoor air pollutants: particle pollution (often called “soot”) and ozone pollution (better known as “smog”).

“The report finds the air quality in some communities has improved, but the ‘State of the Air’ finds that far too many people are still breathing unhealthy air,” says Harold Wimmer, the ALA’s president and CEO, in a released statement.

“Air pollution is linked to greater risk of lung infection,” he adds. “Protecting everyone from COVID-19 and other lung infections is an urgent reminder of the importance of clean air.”

Air pollution is believed to worsen the symptoms and outcomes of COVID-19, although the pandemic is also causing the quality of air to improve in many places as people shelter in place — and stay out of their cars.

A major anniversary

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Clean Air Act, a landmark federal law designed to protect human health and the environment from the destructive effects of air pollution.

“After 50 years under the Clean Air Act, the nation has made significant strides in cleaning up harmful air pollution,” the ALA report states. “However, this year’s report shows that many communities are still waiting for healthy air, and that climate change poses current and growing threats to the nation’s progress. Fully implementing and enforcing the Clean Air Act and addressing climate change requires a strong, coordinated effort on the part of our federal, state, tribal and local leaders, and the need is more urgent than ever.”

“Unfortunately, in almost every case, the [Trump] Administration has continued to attempt to roll back, weaken, or undermine core healthy air protections under the Clean Air Act,” the report adds.

National highs and lows

California’s cities dominate the report’s national lists for the cities most polluted by both short-term (daily spikes) and year-round particle pollution. California is also home to seven of the 10 most ozone-polluted cities, with Los Angeles topping that list.

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“In the western U.S., climate change has made more likely the conditions of heat and drought that promote wildfire hazards,” the report states. “In some communities, wood smoke from home heating, especially when worsened by stagnant air masses known as inversion, has also contributed to high levels of particle pollution.”

Only seven of the 25 cities with the worst smog are east of the Mississippi River. Those include three in the Midwest: Chicago, Sheboygan and Milwaukee.

A larger number of cities east of the Mississippi River appear among the 25 cities with the most year-round particle pollution, including Pittsburgh, Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Cincinnati and Atlanta.

The four cleanest cities — those with no high ozone, no high particle pollution days and the lowest year-round particle pollution levels — were (in alphabetical order) Bangor, Maine; Burlington, Vermont; Honolulu, Hawaii; and Wilmington, North Carolina.

Minnesota’s grades

Overall, Minnesota — at least, the 15 counties for which there was enough monitoring data — received good marks for air quality.  Ten of those counties received “A” grades for ozone pollution, including Hennepin, the state’s most populous county. (No data was available for Ramsey County, the second-most populous.) Carlton and Lyon counties raised their previous “B” grades to “A” grades this year, but Goodhue, Scott and Stearns counties slipped from an “A” to a “B.”  The only “C” grade — and the lowest score in the state — went to Wright County.

Minnesota also scored generally good marks for particle pollution. Six counties received “A” grades, including four — Becker, Lake, Sterns and Washington — that had “B” grades last year. Ten counties (including Hennepin) kept their “B” grades from last year, and one — Wright County — kept its “C.”

The state’s “star” in the report, however, was Duluth. It was one of five cities across the country with no unhealthy smog days, and it was also on the list of cleanest cities for year-round particle pollution.

“We are pleased with Minnesota’s grades in this year’s report,” says Robert Moffitt, a spokesperson for the ALA in Minnesota, in a released statement. “As we emerge from this pandemic, our state and our nation will be faced with decisions on its path forward.”

Duluth's Aerial Lift Bridge, a city landmark and passageway for ships between the city's port and Lake Superior.
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
Minnesota also scored generally good marks for particle pollution. The state’s “star” in the report was Duluth.
FMI: You can read the full report on the American Lung Association’s website.