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How clean is your air? ALA grades each city's air quality

California cities again top ALA's list of most-polluted regions

April 27, 2012

Despite major improvements in U.S. air quality, more than 40% of residents still live in counties where the air is often unhealthy, according to the American Lung Association's (ALA) State of the Air 2012 report.

For the 13th annual report, ALA analyzed levels of ozone (commonly referred to as "smog") and particle pollution (often referred to as "soot" or "ash") using data that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) obtained at various official monitoring sites from 2008 to 2010.

They found that about 127.2 million U.S. residents, or 41%, live in counties where the level of ozone, short-term particles, or year-round particles was unhealthful. Moreover, 5.7 million residents live in a county were all three pollution levels were unhealthful.

The most-polluted cities: California leads the pack
Most of the nation's cities with the highest air pollution were located in California; however, cities like Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Phoenix were also flagged for having unhealthy air.

According to the report, the most ozone-polluted cities in the United States are:

  • Los Angeles-Long Beach-Riverside, Calif.;
  • Visalia-Porterville, Calif.;
  • Bakersfield-Delano, Calif.;
  • Fresno-Madera, Calif.; and
  • Hanford-Corcoran, Calif.

Meanwhile, the cities most populated by short-term particle pollution are:

  • Bakersfield-Delano, Calif.;
  • Fresno-Madera, Calif.
  • Hanford-Corcoran, Calif.;
  • Los Angeles-Long Beach-Riverside, Calif.; and
  • Modesto, Calif.

The cities most populated by long-term particle pollution are:

  • Bakersfield-Delano, Calif.;
  • Hanford-Corcoran, Calif.;
  • Los Angeles-Long Beach-Riverside, Calif.;
  • Visalia-Porterville, Calif.; and
  • Fresno-Madera, Calif.

The report notes that many of the most-polluted cities in the United States have significantly reduced air pollution levels in recent years. For example, Los Angeles reported the lowest level of smog in the report's 13-year history.  

List of cleanest cities: Smaller, located in the West
Meanwhile, ALA also identified cities with the healthiest air. These areas, like Bismarck, N.D., and Sarasota, Fla., tended to have lower population density.

Nine of the top 10 cleaniest cities for year-round particle pollution were located in the West or Southwest. They included:

  • Santa Fe-Espanola, N.M.;
  • Cheyenne, Wyo.;
  • Prescott, Ariz.;
  • Tucson, Ariz.; and
  • Albuquerque, N.M.

Air pollution's health impact
Recent findings suggest that ozone and particle pollution have a more significant impact on residents' health than previously believed, according to the ALA report.

For example:

  • A review of 177 studies published this year in JAMA found that particle pollution and other air pollutants may be associated with an increased myocardial infarction risk;
  • A study published in February in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that breathing particle pollution is associated with immediate increased stroke risk; and
  • A 2009 study suggests that exposure to ozone and particle pollution may increase the risk of asthma attacks and ED visits or hospitalizations for children with asthma.

A recent report from ALA, the Clean Air Task Force, and Earthjustice found that up to 35,700 deaths could be prevented each year if EPA strengthened U.S. health standards for particle pollution (ALA report, 4/25; ALA release, 4/25; Fimrite, San Francisco Chronicle, 4/26).

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