California and different western states lead in air air pollution

Smoke hangs over the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge in San Francisco, California on Wednesday, September 9, 2020.

David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

California and other western states are experiencing dirtier air quality due to worsening heat, drought and wildfires, and communities of color are disproportionately exposed to pollution, according to an American Lung Association report released Wednesday.

The State of the Air report found that between 2019 and 2021, nearly 120 million people, more than a third of the population, lived in areas with unhealthy air pollution. And more than 64 million people of color lived in counties with higher levels of air pollution, which accounts for more than half of people living with unhealthy air quality.

Cities in the western United States, where climate change has led to worsening heat waves, droughts and wildfires, are among the most exposed areas for ground-level ozone and particulate air pollution, according to the report.

The report assigns letter grades that reflect the number of days that air quality in a given area has reached unhealthy levels on the Air Quality Index. Particulate pollution refers to tiny pollutants from sources such as factories, power plants, vehicles, and wildfires, while ozone smog comes from vehicles, factories, or other industrial sources.

Between 2019 and 2021, around 103 million people lived in the 124 counties that received an F grade for ozone smog. Exposure to unhealthy levels of ozone air pollution makes it difficult for more people in the United States to breathe than any other single pollutant, the report said.

California cities top the list of the most polluted cities in the country:

Top 10 cities with the worst ozone pollution:

  1. Los Angeles-Long Beach, CA
  2. Visalia, CA
  3. Bakersfield, CA
  4. Fresno-Madera-Hanford, CA
  5. Phoenix Mesa, AZ
  6. Denver Aurora, CO
  7. Sacramento-Roseville, CA
  8. San Diego-Chula Vista-Carlsbad, CA
  9. Houston-The Woodlands, TX
  10. Salt Lake City-Provo-Orem, UT

More than 64 million Americans now live in counties rated F for peaks in daily particulate pollution. According to the report, wildfires in the western United States have been a major contributor to the increasing number of days and locations with unhealthy particle exposure.

Bakersfield, located north of LA, ranked first for both daily and year-round particle pollution:

Top ten cities with the worst daily particulate matter pollution:

  1. Bakersfield, CA
  2. Fresno-Madera-Hanford, CA
  3. Fairbanks, AK
  4. Visalia, CA
  5. Reno-Carson City-Fernley, NV
  6. San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland, CA
  7. Redding-Red Bluff, CA
  8. Sacramento-Roseville, CA
  9. Chico, CA
  10. Los Angeles-Long Beach, CA

Top 10 cities with the worst year-round particulate matter pollution:

  1. Bakersfield, CA
  2. Visalia, CA
  3. Fresno-Madera-Hanford, CA
  4. Los Angeles-Long Beach, CA
  5. Fairbanks, AK
  6. Sacramento-Roseville, CA
  7. Medford-Grants Pass, OR
  8. Phoenix Mesa, AZ
  9. San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland, CA
  10. Indianapolis-Carmel-Muncie, IN

Air pollution shortens average global life expectancy by more than two years, according to the University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute. Sixty percent of particulate matter pollution comes from burning fossil fuels.

The report found that people of color are nearly four times more likely than white people to live in an area with unhealthy levels of ozone smog and particulate matter.

Harold Wimmer, national president and CEO of the American Lung Association, said in a statement that national ozone pollution levels are improving, but that “not all communities are seeing improvements.”

“That’s why it’s critically important to continue our efforts to ensure everyone in the United States has clean air to breathe,” Wimmer said.

The report used data from air quality monitors maintained by state, local and tribal air pollution control agencies in counties across the country. The authors found that more than 71 million Americans live in counties where ozone and particulate pollution levels are not currently monitored.

The report’s authors noted that climate change is making protecting human health more difficult, as disasters such as heat, drought and wildfires exacerbate high ozone levels and increases in particulate matter.

The American Lung Association called on the Biden administration to advance several measures to eliminate national air pollution, including new limits on ozone and particulate pollution and new measures to curb emissions from power plants and vehicles.

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