Almost half the country — 147 million Americans, to be precise — live in counties with unhealthy air, according to a new report.
The data was pulled from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and analyzed by the American Lung Association (ALA). They tracked two forms of pollution over the 2010–2012 time period. One form was small particles like soot that hang in the air, and which the ALA tracked on both short-term and a year-round basis. The other was ozone, the main ingredient in smog and air pollution, which is created when nitrogen oxides and other chemicals interact with heat and sunlight.
The report found that particle pollution during 2010–2012 improved in most cities from 2009–2011. Ozone pollution, on the other hand, worsened in many areas — probably due to generally hotter temperatures over the latter time period. That led to higher ozone levels, and higher levels that occurred more frequently.
About 147 million Americans live in counties where at least one of those measures — short-term particle pollution, year-round particle pollution, or ozone — topped national safety standards often enough to be a threat to public health. Over 27 million Americans live in counties where all three measures are at unhealthy levels.
Both small particle pollution and the emissions that go into making ozone are created whenever fossil fuels — especially coal and gasoline — are burned by cars and power plants. Stricter air pollution standards enforced by EPA over the last few decades have successfully cut the aggregate levels of air pollution by 72 percent since 1970, even as population, vehicle travel, and the overall size of the economy have all boomed. Just yesterday, the Supreme Court endorsed rules instituted by EPA to crack down on higher-polluting states when their emissions and particles cross into other states and lower their air quality.
Unfortunately, air pollution was so severe at the start of the 70s that even those cuts have left many areas of the country with levels of particle and ozone pollution that regularly breach the thresholds EPA and other officials consider safe.
For example, 18 of the 25 American cities with the worst air pollution saw their year-round particle pollution drop since ALA’s last report. Thirteen of those cities actually registered their lowest levels ever — but even that improvement left them short of actually meeting national standards for year-round particle pollution.
The ALA report cites multiple studies that show regular exposure to ozone can cause breathing problems, inflame the lungs, aggravate asthma and lung diseases, and increase the risk of cardiovascular problems like heart attacks. The effects are a particular risk for the young and the elderly. Other studies have also linked the ingredients that go into ozone to damaging changes to heart tissue.
As for particle pollution, studies by the World Health Organization and other researchers have linked it to increased risks for cardiovascular disease, lung inflammation, asthma, and premature death as well.
This is why analyses of federal regulations regularly show that their benefits to the American economy — largely in the form of increased health — vastly outweigh their costs to the businesses that have to comply with them. One EPA study determined that by cutting down on the nitrogen oxides and other emissions that cause ozone, as well as on particle pollution, environmental regulations prevented 130,000 heart attacks, 86,000 hospital visits, 160,000 premature deaths in 2010 alone.