Nearly 129M live where ozone pollution levels earn an F in US, 'State of the Air' report says

The American Lung Association’s (ALA) 2018 “State of the Air” report found that ozone pollution worsened significantly compared to the previous annual report. About 128.9 million people live in counties that earned an F for ozone on this year’s report, which is 12.4 million more people than the 2017 findings.

The State of the Air report “translates a bunch of really complicated information coming out of air pollution monitors into something that is easier for people to understand,” Janice Nolen, author of the report, said. “People can learn more about how the air where they are living actually is doing compared to what we know about where it should be for human health protection.”

The ALA created an online system in which people can type in their zip code and receive the report card for their community. The 2018 report is based on data from 2014 to 2016.

More than four in 10 people, over 133.9 million, that live in the United States live in counties that have unhealthful levels of either ozone or particle pollution.

Nearly 7.7 million people live in counties that received an F in all three categories: ozone, short-term and year-round particle pollution. While this stat is significantly less than the 2017 report, 10.4 million fewer people, that is likely due to the fact that two heavily populated and heavily polluted counties in California lacked year-round particle-pollution data: San Bernardino County and Los Angeles County.

Though counties in California are usually very good at collecting air quality data, Nolen explains that capturing the data for particles is a really complicated procedure and it’s not unlikely to have missing data.

The report estimates that if these two counties had data, the number of people that live in counties with an F in all three sections would be closer to 19 million.

Though Los Angeles County lacked particle-pollution data, the report was still able to show that the city of Los Angeles remains the city with the worst ozone pollution. While the amount of days decreased in the 2017 report, it spiked again in the report this year.

California is home to 19 of the top 25 most-ozone polluted counties in the United States.

More: Los Angeles County pollution

For the first time, Fairbanks, Alaska, ranked as the most polluted city for year-round particle pollution. This major shift is not due to an actual change in air quality, but from an improved monitoring system. Previously, there was not a good system in place for year-round monitoring. In Fairbanks, there is a pollution issue stemming from the use of old, dirty wood stoves.

“Often people don’t appreciate the fact that wood stoves can be harmful and breathing in wood smoke can be very harmful,” Nolen said.

Improved air quality has been proven to lead to improved health, according to Nolen.

“Places that have improved air quality in the past have found that people live longer, their lungs function better, kids grow better,” Nolen said.

Of the 25 most ozone-polluted cities, 16 had worse ozone, experiencing more unhealthy air days on average in the 2018 report compared to the 2017 report.

“In many parts of the country, we saw that the really hot year in 2016 increased the number of days that we had unhealthy air,” Nolen said.

“Warmer temperatures stimulate the reactions in the atmosphere that cause ozone to form, and 2016 saw the second warmest temperatures on record in the United States,” the report said.

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According to the report, the EPA has delayed steps to formally identify cities that do not meet the ozone national air quality standard.

“The Lung Association and others had to take legal action to get EPA to announce its long-overdue list of cities that have unhealthy levels of ozone,” the report said. The court directed the EPA to release the national list by the end of April 2018.

Climate change poses challenges to reducing air pollution levels

Climate change makes it harder to protect human health, explained Nolen. The United States has taken steps to successfully mitigate climate change and as a result has cleaned up the air, as proven by the results of the report over the last 19 years, according to Nolen.

But those that work to fight climate change are facing new challenges, including steps taken by the government to roll back protections in place under the Clean Air Act, according to the report.

“We’ve been making good progress at reducing air pollution thanks to the Clean Air Act,” Nolen said. “We’ve done it very steadily over the last 40 to 50 years.”

Nolen explains that reducing pollution has led to “astonishing progress,” but global warming continues to remain a roadblock in cleaning the air to healthy levels around the nation.

“Climate change is threatening for a variety of reasons to do the kinds of things that we have been fighting against in terms of increased ozone, increased particles, and we need every tool to fight that," she said.

The report references six specific threats to these tools and the United State’s progress toward cleaner, healthier air.

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