During May, events are held across the nation to bring awareness to the importance of clean air. Clean Air Month is a time to assess the quality of our air and determine how we can improve it. Unfortunately, the American Lung Association’s 2021 State of The Air Report revealed some troubling results.
The State Of The Air report was first published in 2000 to reflect the success of the Clean Air Act, a 1970 initiative to give the federal government more control over air pollution. To determine air quality, air is collected at official monitoring sites by federal, state, local and tribal governments across the United States. The 2021 report presents data from 2017, 2018 and 2019 in order to provide the most recent quality-assured nationwide air pollution data publicly available.
While the Clean Air Act has played a large role in reducing emissions from transportation, power plants and manufacturing, The State of the Air 2021 reveals that there is much more to be done to protect human health from the detrimental effects of climate change.
Despite some nationwide progress on cleaning up air pollution, the report revealed that more than 40% of Americans are living in polluted areas. That means that over 135 million people are living in places with unhealthy air quality.
What are the most dangerous pollutants?
The State of the Air uses the presence of two of the most widespread and dangerous air pollutants in order to determine the nation’s air quality: ozone and fine particulate matter.
Ozone is a gas composed of three atoms of oxygen that occurs both in the Earth’s upper atmosphere and at ground level. When it is present on the ground level, ozone can cause an array of health problems including chest pain, coughing, throat irritation, and airway inflammation. It also can harm lung function and exasperate the symptoms of bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma, leading to increased medical care.
Ozone is the main ingredient in “smog” and is most likely to reach unhealthy levels on hot sunny days in urban environments. But ozone is not limited to urban areas. Since it’s transported by wind, both suburban and rural areas can experience high ozone levels. Because ozone is driven by heat and climate change is creating warmer temperatures, ozone pollution has become more likely to form and harder to clean up.
The past five State Of The Air Reports have shown that ozone pollution is generally worse in Western cities. This is largely because oil and gas extraction has shifted to the Southwest and many Eastern power plants have done extensive cleanups of their facilities. Los Angeles has been the American city with the worst ozone pollution for all but one of the 22 years tracked by the “State of the Air” report.
But, ozone is far from being exclusively a Western issue. Transported pollution is a major source of low air quality in the East. For instance, Fairfield County, Connecticut is the county with the highest ozone in the eastern half of the nation, largely due to pollution transported from other states.
The 2021 State of the Air Report determined that in the years 2017, 2018 and 2019, more than 123.2 million people lived in the 163 counties that earned an F for ozone.
Fine Particulate Matter (PM)
PM are a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets found in the air. Some particles, such as dust, dirt, soot, or smoke, are large or dark enough to be seen with the naked eye. Others are so small they can only be detected using an electron microscope. Particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, also known as fine particles or PM2.5, pose the greatest risk to our health. Research has shown that exposure to PM2.5 can result in a range of heart and lung problems and, in extreme cases, even cause premature death.
Wildfires are one of the major contributors to PM pollution. The huge increase of the number and size of wildfires in Western states has led to dangerously high levels of PM pollution in th West. In fact, In “State of the Air” 2021, all but two of the 25 worst cities for short-term particle pollution were in the western U.S., with 10 in California, 8 in the Pacific Northwest and 5 in the Southwest.
But, wildfires are not the only source of high particle pollution days. Wood stoves, older diesel vehicles and equipment, and industrial sources can all contribute to particle pollution. And, because of their tiny size and changes in weather patterns, particles can be carried over long distances by wind and then settle on ground or water.
In total, the 2021 Report showed that in the years 2017, 2018 and 2019, nearly 54.4 million people lived in areas with unhealthy spikes in particulate matter air pollution. This number is higher than in any of the last five reports.
Who is most affected by pollution?
While even otherwise healthy people can experience negative health effects from low quality air, there are some segments of the population that are more at risk for complications or even death.
The “State of the Air” 2021 determined that people of color, people experiencing poverty, children and older adults, and people with underlying health conditions are most vulnerable to health problems from pollution.
Unfortunately, the people most at risk for complications are often the most likely to live in polluted areas. For instance, people of color are over three times more likely to be breathing the most polluted air than white people.
What can we do to improve our air quality?
Policy change: The most impactful changes in our air quality need to happen at a structural level. Get involved in local environmental advocacy groups and support candidates who prioritize clean air initiatives.
Live in areas with better air quality: While for many people, moving is simply not an option, if you do have a choice of where to live, do some research on areas with the best air quality.
Check the air quality before going outside. In areas that are prone to high pollution, it can be useful to check the air quality before engaging in outdoor activities.
Monitor your indoor air. As bad as outdoor air can be, indoor air quality is typically much worse. In fact, most homes have air that is 2 to 5 times more polluted than outdoor air. To keep your indoor air quality at the highest possible levels, use a high quality air purifier with a True HEPA filter. Hepa filters remove 99.95% of pollutants from your indoor air. Since most of us spent around 90% of our time indoors, an air purifier can make a significant difference in your family’s health.