The American Lung Association has released lists of the nations most polluted cities in its annual State of the Air report this week. This years findings show that improvements have been made in the areas of ozone (smog) and particle pollution (soot) thanks to the Clean Air Act. Still, its not all good news with the report finding that half of the United States population154.5 million peoplelive in counties that have unhealthful levels of either ozone or particle pollution at times throughout the year. To ensure air pollution continues its decline year after year, the American Lung Association and other watchdogs say Congress needs to cease efforts to weaken the Clean Air Act and strip funding from the Environmental Protection Agency.
Here are some other striking facts from the report:
According to the American Lung Association, one huge problem that needs correcting are the over 440 coal-fired plants in 46 states that are the largest contributors to air pollution: soot that causes lung diseases; sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides that cause smog and acid rain; and mercury that contaminates fish (not to mention carbon dioxide that fuels climate change).
Whether you're considering smog or soot, the one glaring constant on all the lists is this: cities in Southern California have the worst air. In fact, just last year, the the California Air Resources Board released a report stating that soot is responsible for the premature deaths of 9,000 Californians per year!
Commonly called soot, particle pollution refers to a mix of tiny solid and liquid particles that are in the air we breathe. The particles are microscopic and can penetrate our lungs or bloodstream. The damage done by particle pollution is very similar to that done by cigarette smoking, and exposure to either increases the risk of heart attacks and stroke, in addition to lung diseases like cancer and asthma.
"Particle pollution kills," said Dr. Norman H. Edelman, chief medical officer of the American Lung Association, in a prepared statement. "When you breathe these microscopic particles, you are inhaling a noxious mix of chemicals, metals, acid aerosols, ash and soot that is emitted from smokestacks, tailpipes, and other sources."
The other pollutant spotlighted by the American Lung Association is even more dangerous than particle pollution: ozone. Ozone pollution is a component of smog, and it's the the most widespread pollutant. It's also invisible, and attacks lung tissue by reacting chemically with it. Children, teens, anyone 65 or older, and those who work or exercise outside are said to be at the highest risk for health issues from exposure to ozoneparticularly during the summer months, when heat and sunlight react with pollutants to produce ozone. In 2004, a study showed that increased levels of ozone were responsible for over 3,700 deaths annually in the U.S. by decreasing lung function and increasing risk of lung infections, asthma attacks and pulmonary inflammation.
Ultimately, reducing the causes of air pollution primarily smokestack and tailpipe pollution, but also wood-burning fireplaces and boilers is the only effective way to reduce illness from exposure. But until the air is cleaner, experts recommend these steps for reducing your exposure and risk:
Enter your city or zip code to get your local temperature and air quality and find local green food and recycling resources near you.