Pollution Report: More Americans Breathing Easier

Los Angeles Pollution

NEW YORK -- While dangerous pollutants still threaten the health of millions of Americans, the United States has made great strides in clearing the air, according to the American Lung Association.

In its annual State of the Air 2012 report, the organization said that between 2001 and 2010, ozone levels dropped 13 percent, year-round particle pollution declined 24 percent and short-term particle pollution 28 percent -- thanks to the Clean Air Act.

Particle pollution includes things like dust, metals, smoke, exhaust, and acids like nitrates and sulfates. Ozone, meanwhile, is created when a chemical or fossil fuel, like coal or gasoline, is partially burned and the unburned hydrocarbons, when combined with ultraviolet light, form a gas.

Amendments to the Clean Air Act in 1990, which included the promotion of the use of natural gas and low sulfur fuel, have resulted in 23,000 fewer premature deaths in 2010, averted 1.7 million asthma attacks, and prevented 4.1 million lost work days, according to The Environmental Protection Agency.

But pollution still takes a great toll on public health. More than 4 out of 10 Americans, 127 million people, live in counties with dangerous levels of either ozone or particle pollution, the American Lung Association said.The result: increased incidents of all sorts of health problems, especially asthma, bronchitis and cardiovascular disease.

"We've been paying for this pollution for a long time," said Janice Nolen, the national policy advocate for the ALA.

The ALA report ranked cities by particle pollution, both short-term and year-round, as well as by ozone levels.

Most Polluted Cities
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Pollution Report: More Americans Breathing Easier

Population: 839,631

Cardiovascular cases: 173,566
Rank in most ozone-polluted cities: 3

Bakersfield sits in a bowl surrounded on three sides by the Sierras and the California coastal ranges. Air drifts down the valley from other cities and lingers, allowing pollutants to build up, according to Jaime Holt, chief communications officer for the San Joaquin Valley Air Quality District. Making matters worse, the sun bakes the air, causing photochemical smog. And the dry weather adds dust particles to the mix.

But there have been efforts to clean up Bakersfield's act. Regulations governing emissions from surrounding oil and gas producers that took effect in 2003 have helped to significantly reduce pollution in the area, said Holt.

Area farmers have also changed many of their practices. They now refrain from cultivating when the ground is too dry, for example, in order to reduce dust. And regulations limiting residential use of fireplaces and wood stoves have also helped.

"We have some crystal clear days here now, where you can see snow in the Sierras," said Holt. "But then they can go away for weeks at a time."

Population: 152,982
Cardiovascular cases: 31,019
Rank in most ozone-polluted cities: 5

This small metro area should boast azure skies but, too often, the polluted air from Fresno, its neighbor to the North, drifts in, said Jaime Holt, chief communications officer for the San Joaquin Valley Air Quality District.

It doesn't help that many of the local residents are also driving older cars that often produce much higher levels of the components that create smog.

One solution to that problem is a recently instituted smog check program called "Tune in, Tune up" run by the Air Quality District.

The state agency sets up in a big empty parking lot and gives free smog tests. "The cars that can't pass get a $500 voucher for a major tune up," said Holt.

Population: 17,877,006
Cardiovascular cases: 4,109,426
Rank in most ozone-polluted cities: 1

One of Los Angeles' biggest pollution problems is its ports.

"Forty-three percent of all the imports in the country come through here," said Sam Atwood, spokesman for the South Coast Air Quality Management District. "Once the cargo comes in, it gets put on a truck, moved to warehouses and taken to trains. Almost everything is powered by diesel."

There have been several efforts made to cut back on this diesel-related pollution. One is the voluntary slowing of ships as they come into port, starting from about 24 nautical miles out. By doing so, the ships burn less fuel and produce lower emissions.

The port is also upgrading facilities so ships can plug into electricity from shore and rely less on running their auxiliary engines.

The state is also dealing with pollution on the road by imposing strict gasoline regulations that cut toxic chemicals like benzene.

"When I first flew out here in 1987 to interview for a job, I almost had a panic attack," said Atwood. "I was 10 miles from the mountains and I couldn't see them. That doesn't happen anymore."

Population: 442,179
Cardiovascular cases: 89,570
Rank in most ozone-polluted cities: 2

Lying just south of Fresno, the skies of this small city bear the brunt of some of the pollution produced by its larger neighbor.

But Visalia can't blame it all on Fresno. Agricultural lands surrounding the town depend heavily on irrigation and many of the pumps bringing water to dry farmlands burn diesel, which produces both particle pollution and ozone.

"Over the past few years, most of those diesel pumps have been switched over to electricity," said Holt of the Valley's Air Quality District.

Air quality has also improved, she said, because the agency has used federal and state grants to pay residents to replace wood-burning stoves and fireplaces with gas or electricity.

Photo by Marg.ret, flickr.com


Many of the cities with the dirtiest air are located in the sunny valleys and basins of the West, where pollutants can stagnate and cook into photochemical smogs.

As a result, California lays claim to many of the most polluted cities. Bakersfield, in California's San Joaquin Valley, claimed the top spot as the most polluted city in the United States for 2012 for both types of particle pollution and was third in ozone levels. Los Angeles continues to be the worst city for ozone pollution, thanks to its heavy traffic and trade ports.

Outside the Golden State, the city with the highest ranking in any category was Pittsburgh, which came in sixth in both particle pollution categories and 20th in ozone levels. Philadelphia also ranked in the top 25 for all three pollutants.

One surprise was Fairbanks, Alaska. The city near the center of Alaska's vast and mostly empty territory recorded high scores in both types of particle pollution. Tailpipe emissions and wood smoke -- from the numerous stoves used for heating -- freeze in the sub-zero temperatures and hang around for weeks at a time. It's called ice smog.

Meanwhile, six cities managed to improve their year-round particle pollution by so much that they managed to fall off the list of the top 25 most polluted cities.

One-time major contributors to dirty air, like Detroit and New York, now rely on far less industry and are no longer among the worst offenders. Lancaster, Pa., York, Pa., Modesto, Calif. and Knoxville, Tenn., also improved enough to fall off the list.

Helping to clean up the air are stricter power plant controls, which force energy companies to use cleaner fuels and better exhaust scrubbers, said Nolen. Cleaner diesel engines have also helped a lot.

"The progress has been absolutely great," she said.

Those looking for the cleanest air can look no farther than Santa Fe-Espanola, N.M., which took the top spot for air purity in all three categories, according to the ALA's report.

Rounding out the top five for both ozone and year-round particle pollution are Bismarck, N.D., Duluth, Minn., Honolulu, Port St. Lucie, Fla., and Rapid City, S.D.

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