- Particle and ozone air pollution continue to impact communities throughout the United States, with some more heavily burdened.
- A new report from the American Lung Association finds that air pollution is increasingly becoming more of a problem for people In the U.S.
- Emissions related to fossil fuels have decreased in U.S., but climate change has led to worse air quality.
More than 40 percent of Americans live in places with unhealthy levels of particle pollution or ozone, according to an annual report released today by the American Lung Association (ALA).
The organization’s “State of the Air” report for 2022 also shows that air pollution is becoming increasingly problematic for many Americans.
Over two million more people were breathing unhealthy air in their community compared to last year’s report.
In addition, during the three years covered by the latest report, Americans experienced more “very unhealthy” and “hazardous” air quality days than previously during the report’s two-decade history.
“The fact that we see an increase in the number of Americans that are impacted by particulate pollution compared to last year really demonstrates that air quality remains an important concern for the public,” said Dr. Meredith McCormack, an ALA national spokesperson and a pulmonary and critical care physician at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
This year’s report includes data from 2018 through 2020. It focuses on two of the most common types of air pollution — fine particle pollution (both short-term and year-round) and ozone pollution.
The American Lung Association has produced these reports since 2000. There have been improvements in some types of pollution during this time, driven in part by the Clean Air Act.
Emissions from transportation, power plants, and manufacturing have dropped in recent years, according to the report’s authors.
However, they wrote that some of these gains have been offset by increases in pollution related to climate change. This includes spikes in particle pollution and more days with high ozone levels due to wildfires and extreme heat.
Research shows that climate change has already led to a longer wildfire season, a greater number of wildfires per season, and a greater area burned.
In addition, the impact of wildfires on air quality is not just local.
A recent study by researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado, found that wildfires in the Pacific Northwest also impact air quality in central and northeastern areas of the country.
“Some of the air pollution levels that are documented in this report are driven by the wildfire smoke episodes that we have experienced across the West,” said Susan Anenberg, PhD, director of the GW Climate and Health Institute in Washington, DC, who was not involved in the NCAR research.
However, “these wildfire smoke events don’t just influence the West,” she added. “They also have effects on [fine particle] levels across the entire country.”
She said climate change would continue to degrade air quality throughout the country — driven by increasing wildfires, aridity in the Southwest, and the formation of ozone — unless controls are put in place on the emission of air pollutants and greenhouse gases.
While some communities scored well on air quality, many are burdened by higher levels of particle pollution or ozone.
“There’s a lot of variability in air quality [throughout the United States],” said McCormack, “and where you live matters.”
Of the 96 counties in 15 states with failing grades for short-term particles, 86 of them were in 11 states west of the Rocky Mountains, the report found.
A similar trend was seen for annual particle pollution. Of the 21 counties with a failing grade for this type of air pollution, all were in five western states.
In addition, people of color were 61 percent more likely than white people to live in a county with a failing grade for at least one pollutant, the report found.
They were also more than three times as likely to live in a county with a failing grade for all three types of air pollution.
Other research has found similar racial and ethnic disparities with air pollution.
A study published April 7 in Nature Sustainability, found that during the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders in California in 2020, neighborhoods with high Asian and Hispanic populations experienced larger declines in air pollution compared to neighborhoods with larger white populations.
Study author Pascal Polonik, a PhD student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, said while this may sound like a positive, it suggests that these communities are usually more affected by pollution.
“During normal times when there’s no shutdown, those emissions — the emissions that went away during the shutdown — are actually having a disproportionate burden on those communities,” he said.
In addition, the study showed that communities with higher Black populations didn’t see a similar drop in air pollution levels during the shutdown.
“This doesn’t mean that Black people experience less air pollution,” said Polonik. But “those communities might be more impacted by certain fixed sources that are less likely to change during the shutdown,” such as power plants, factories, and electricity generators.
Anenberg said the ALA report and other research “really shines a light on the fact that while air quality has been improving on average across the United States for a long time, we still see these disproportionate burdens being experienced by some population subgroups.”
McCormack said people exposed to higher levels of air pollution near their homes might also be exposed to higher levels at work, school, or traveling.
In addition, Dr. Afif El-Hasan, an ALA national spokesperson and a pediatrician with Kaiser Permanente, California, said communities heavily impacted by air pollution might face other health disparities.
They may have less access to healthcare. They may need to bike or walk to work, which exposes them to greater air pollution during their commute.
Or they may not have access to air conditioning, which means keeping their windows open during heat waves, when air pollution levels may be higher.
“Lacking resources and living in areas with increased amounts of pollution causes a ripple effect on how much pollution people are exposed to,” said El-Hasan. “Because it’s not just what’s in the air outside. It also has to do with your own socioeconomic situation.”
Particle pollution refers to tiny bits of solids and liquids in the air. This type of pollution comes from factories, power plants, gasoline-powered vehicles, wood-burning stoves and fireplaces, and wildfires.
It ranges from coarse particles — like pollen, dust, and ash — to fine and ultrafine particles.
While the nose and lungs can trap larger particles in the air we breathe, smaller particles can reach the deepest parts of the lungs.
Some ultrafine particles can even pass into the bloodstream and travel to different parts of the body, where they can affect other organs.
Particle pollution can trigger illness, hospitalization, and premature deaths. An estimated 48,000 Americans die each year from fine particle pollution, according to the ALA report.
Most of these deaths are due to respiratory and cardiovascular causes — such as heart attacks, strokes, and asthma attacks.
Short-term exposure to fine particle pollution has also been linked to an increased chance of having a positive result on a COVID-19 test.
Researchers think that air pollution may worsen the severity of symptoms rather than increase the risk of infection, although they say more research is needed.
“This [type of relationship] was also the case with other viruses beforehand,” said El-Hasan. “It’s just more pronounced now because we’re dealing with a pandemic.”
The other type of pollution included in the ALA report is ozone air pollution, also known as smog. This can impact health by causing inflammation and other damage to the lungs. Over time, this can impair lung function and increase the risk of premature death.
Ozone forms in the lower atmosphere when other pollutants — usually nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) — chemically react in sunlight.
These other pollutants are emitted from motor vehicles, power plants, factories, paint, consumer products, and other sources.
As a pediatrician, El-Hasan is particularly concerned about the impact of air pollution on children.
“All of us have a right to clean air. But because kids’ lungs are growing, air pollution actually reduces lung development,” said El-Hasan. “So an adult who grows up in pollution has less lung capacity than an adult who grew up in clean air.”
These kinds of impacts will be more severe in communities that have ongoing exposure to air pollution.
Long-term exposure has been linked to health problems such as low birth weight in children, increased risk of fetal and infant mortality, impaired lung development in children, and lung cancer.
“When you have a situation where the same county or the same neighborhoods are experiencing higher air pollution levels year after year, those people are exposed to continuously higher pollution levels,” said Anenberg. “That really has very serious consequences for public health.”
McCormack said one of the goals of the “State of the Air” report is to raise awareness about air pollution. People can even visit the ALA’s website and find out how their community is doing.
Or how other communities are faring.
“It’s also a tool that really demonstrates that even if things are okay in your community, they might not be okay in other areas,” said McCormack. “As a whole, we need to make sure that everyone has access to clean air.”
In addition to educating the public, Anenberg said she hopes the report reaches decision-makers, who have the power to make systemic changes to reduce emissions that drive air pollution and climate change.
“We really need to put in place policies to move away from fossil fuel combustion and reduce emissions,” she said. “This will move us towards protecting public health.”