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TWH – In the spring of 2022, the American Lung Association (ALA) released its annual “State of the Air” Report. They have issued this report every year for the last 23 years. Each report describes air pollution in the U.S. over a three-year period. The current report covers the years 2018 through 2020. In these reports, the ALA assigns a grade to cities, counties, metro areas, and states based on air pollution. Some areas were given a failing grade.
Higher Risk for People of Color
The ALA reported that People of Color have much higher risks of breathing in polluted air than White people. About 72 million People of Color, making up roughly 22% of the overall population, live in counties with a failing grade of all three pollutants: ozone, daily particle, or yearly particle pollution.The ALA assigned a failing rating on all three measures to 14 U.S. counties. About 19.8 million people live in those 14 counties. The 14.1 million People of Color living in those 14 counties constitute 71% of all people in those counties. The report found that People of Color “were 61% more likely than white people to live in a county with a failing grade for at least one pollutant.”Air Pollution in the U.S.
The ALA reported that 137 million people in the U.S. live in “places with failing grades for unhealthy levels of ozone or particle pollution.” That figure amounts to about 42% of the U.S. population. More people experienced days of “hazardous” or “very unhealthy” air than people in the prior 23 years of this report.
In the years 2018, 2019, and 2020, extreme heat and droughts have increased wildfires in the West. The increase in wildfires has, in turn, increased air pollution. In the U.S. West, pollution from wildfires has negated the effect of air pollution control policies.A DC-10 Air Tanker flying in smoke below a red sun over the Woolsey Fire in California (2018) – Image credit: Peter Buschmann, United States Forest Service, USDA – Public DomainIn this report, the ALA examined three types of pollution: 1) Daily particle pollution, 2) Annual average particle pollution, and 3) Ozone Pollution.
Sources of Particle Pollution
The ALA defines particle pollution as “a mixture of tiny bits of solids and liquids in the air we breathe.” Gas-powered motor vehicles, factories, and power plants emit these particles or their precursors. One such precursor, nitrogen oxide, also contributes to ozone pollution. The burning of biomass to produce energy also creates particle pollution. Whenever wood burns in campfires, stoves, or wildfires (or even ritual fires), it produces particle pollution.
Particle pollution results in 48,000 premature deaths in the U.S. annually. Particle pollution primarily damages the cardiovascular and respiratory systems.The ALA assigned a failing grade to 96 counties in the U.S. for spikes in daily particulate pollution.The report ranked the 25 metro areas with the worst daily particle pollution. All but one of these metropolitan areas were west of the Rockies. Fresno-Madera-Hanford, Calif. had the most pollution, followed by Bakersfield, Calif. Fairbanks, Alaska scored in third place. California had 11 metropolitan areas on this list. The Pacific Northwest, including Alaska and Idaho, had nine, and the Southwest four.
Twenty-one counties in the U.S. failed to meet national air quality standards for annual particle pollution.
While the 11 metro areas with the worst annual average particulate pollution were all western states. Nine of the next 14 metro areas with the worst annual average particulate pollution were from the midwestern and eastern parts of the U.S.: Cincinnati, Ohio, Indianapolis, Ind., Pittsburgh, Pa., Detroit, Mich., Philadelphia, Pa., Chicago, Ill., Houston, Texas, St. Louis, Mo., Augusta, Ga., and Shreveport, La.
Bakersfield, Calif. had the highest score for yearly average particulate pollution, followed by Fresno-Madura-Hanford, Calif., and Visalia, Calif.
Fossil fuels and power plants produce volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxide. In sunlight, those chemicals combine, and a chemical chain reaction begins resulting in ozone. Higher temperatures increase ozone production.
Ozone irritates the lungs and causes inflammation. With high levels of ozone, people report chest tightness, coughing, and shortness of breath. It can lead to Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). Among children, it can lead to asthma.
The ALA defines ozone as “a gas composed of molecules with three oxygen atoms,” which differs from the oxygen humans need to breathe.
Among the 25 metro areas with the worse ozone pollution, 11 were in California. Only three metro areas were east of the Mississippi: (14) New York-Newark, N.Y.-N.J.-Conn.-Pa., (16) Chicago-Naperville, Ill.-Ind.-Wis., and (24) Detroit-Warren-Ann Arbor, Mich. Los Angeles-Long Beach, Calif. ranked number one for worse ozone pollution, followed by Bakersfield, Calif. and Visalia, Calif.Ozone pollution impacts far more people than daily or annual particle pollution. About 122.3 million people live in counties with a failing grade for ozone pollution. In contrast, 63.2 million live in counties with a failing grade for daily particle pollution, and “only” 20.3 milling in counties with a failing grade for annual particle pollution.
Risk factors for pollution damage
The ALA identified four factors that influence risk from air pollution: exposure, susceptibility, access to health care, and psycho-social stress.
Exposure means being in an area with high levels of air pollution.
Susceptibility refers to physiological risk factors like pregnancy. It also refers to underlying health conditions, such as cardiovascular or respiratory disease, and to issues of aging. Both children and older adults have a higher risk.
Smog captured in satellite photo (2018) – Imaged credit: Alexander Gerst – CC BY-SA 2.0 Lack of access to health means more than being unable to pay. Some areas have fewer doctors to choose from and linguistic minorities may not find healthcare providers that speak their language. Sexual and gender minorities people may be unable to find a welcoming provider. People of Color may be unable to find a non-racist provider. Women may be unable to find a provider who respects women.
Poverty, discrimination, and harassment increase psycho-social stress. That stress leads to high blood pressure and cardiovascular issues. Those conditions would also place someone at increased risk for harm from air pollution.
Groups Differ in Vulnerability to Air Pollutants
Air pollution threatens everyone. Some groups of people, however, show greater vulnerability to its effects. These groups are intersectional rather than mutually exclusive.
Generally, people with the least power will bear the burden of any problem. Sometimes this results from economic factors like lack of health care. At other times, it comes from political factors. Some neighborhoods have the power to block polluters from locating in their area. Sometimes it results from physiological factors like aging or prior health conditions.
Those living in poverty and with high levels of air pollution have a higher risk for worse outcomes. The federal poverty level is frequently used to measure poverty. About 15.9 million people with incomes below that level live in counties with a failing grade on at least one measure. In counties that failed on all three measures, 2.6 million people live below the federal poverty line.
Age minorities form another group at high risk for harm from air pollution. About 31 million people under 18 and 21 million adults over age 65 live in counties with a failing grade on all three measures.These higher risk factors explain the importance of environmental justice. The ALA website has an interactive website where a person can look up how a given zip code or state ranks in their system.
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