Over 185 million Americans or about 6 out of every 10 people in the US live in areas where the air is so polluted that it endangers life, said a new report released earlier this week.

The State of the Air 2009 report, by the American Lung Association, said many of the culprits such as dirty power plants, diesel engines and ships also contribute to global warming.

The Lung Association is urging individuals and the government to make choices that tackle three challenges at the same time: air pollution, energy and global warming.

Although there has been a lot of progress against air pollution, nearly every major US city still has bad air pollution and for many of them the figures show the air this year is dirtier than it was last year.

American Lung Association National Board Chair, Stephen Nolan said this should be a “wake up call”.

“We know that air pollution is a major threat to human health, when 60 percent of Americans are left breathing air dirty enough to send people to the emergency room, to shape how kids’ lungs develop, and to kill, air pollution remains a serious problem,” he said.

The new report assigns a grade to different parts of the US depending on the quality of the air there. It also shows how the quality has changed for 900 counties over the last 10 years.

The grades go from A to F and bring together three categories: ozone (smog), annual particle pollution, and 24-hour particle pollution.

The three cities with the highest ozone pollution are Los Angeles-Long Beach-Riverside metropolitan area, Bakersfield and Visalia-Porterville, both in the San Joaquin Valley.

These three cities are also at the top of the most polluted cities for year-round particle pollution, and also follow close behind Pittsburgh-New Castle, Pennsylvania at the top of the list of cities most polluted by 24-hour fine particle pollution.

Only 1 city, Fargo, North Dakota, ranked cleanest in all three categories.

17 other cities appear on two of the three categories of cleanest cities.

Others like Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta, Charlotte, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, and Baltimore have improved their air quality over the last 10 years.

Ozone is the most widespread form of air pollution. When breathed in it irritates the lungs, and has an effect like a bad suburn, with immediate health effects. It can cause wheezing, coughing and asthma, and breathing ozone pollution has been shown to shorten life expectancy.

In March 2008, a tighter Environmental Protection Agency standard for ozone pollution showed that this type of air pollution was more widespread than previously thought.

When the American Lung Association evaluated the most recent figures against the new EPA standard they found that around 58 per cent (175 million) of Americans lived in areas where too many days with unhealthy ozone levels were recorded. This compares with 93 million people reported in the previous year.

American Lung Association president and chief executive, Charles Connor, said:

“More than 175 million Americans live in areas with unhealthy smog levels — that’s 80 million more than we identified in last year’s report.”

While some cities, like Los Angeles (a city with a long-standing and well publicized smog problem), have shown improvements in ozone pollution over the last 10 years, others like Dallas-Ft. Worth and Las Vegas have worse ozone levels now than they did 10 years ago.

Connor said the American Lung Association think the standard should be made even tighter and that the scientific community agrees.

The new EPA standard was brought in last year after the Association brought legal action to force the agency to do a formal review. The new standard of 0.075 parts per million (ppm) is still short of the 0.060 recommended by the Association, and they, together with other bodies representing states, public health and environmental groups have taken the EPA back to court to try and get them to change to the 0.060 ppm standard.

Particle pollution, another of the three categories that makes up the A to F score, is considered the “most dangerous and deadly of the outdoor air pollutants that are widespread in America,” said the report, which warns that it “can increase the risk of early death, heart attacks, strokes and emergency room visits for asthma and cardiovascular disease”.

On average, 1 in 6 Americans lives in an area with an unhealthy level of year-round fine particle pollution, said the report. And 3 in 10 live in counties with unhealthy 24-hour levels (where the amount of fine particles in the air can spike to unhealthy levels and stay there for several hours or even days).

13 cities had more days, or more severe days, of spikes than reported last year, although 11 have been improving steadily since 2007.

The evidence linking particulate air pollution and poor health is mounting. Researchers in California have recently tripled their estimate of the number of deaths due to this type of pollution in their state every year.

Chief Medical Officer of the American Lung Association, Dr Norman Edelman, said:

“The science is rock-solid. We now know that air pollution can impair the lung function of even the healthiest people.”

“Air pollution worsens asthma and is a direct cause of heart attacks, which makes people living with lung and heart disease especially vulnerable,” he added.

Connor said:

“America needs to cut emissions from big polluters like coal-fired power plants and ocean-going vessels.”

“We need to fix old dirty diesel engines to make them cleaner and strengthen the ozone standards to better protect our health. We also need to improve the decaying infrastructure of air monitors. America must now enforce the laws that help us improve our nation’s air quality,” he added.

For the full report and to search local air quality grades by zip code visit American Lung Association.

Main source: Environment News Service.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD