State of America's Air? Potentially Dangerous

More Than Half of Americans Live in Areas With Unhealthy Air Pollution

From the WebMD Archives

April 29, 2004 -- More than half of Americans -- 55% -- live in areas with either unhealthy smog or particle air pollution, according to a new report.

The American Lung Association State of the Air: 2004 report shows nearly half of Americans (136 million) live in counties with unhealthy levels of ozone air pollution despite more than three decades of efforts to reduce smog. In addition, up to 28% of Americans (81 million) live in areas with unhealthy short-term particle pollution, and 23% (66 million) live in areas with unhealthy year-round levels of particle pollution.

According to the report, the cities most affected by poor air quality in each region are:

  • Northeast -- New York City; Philadelphia; Harrisburg, Pa.; Pittsburgh; Washington, D.C.; Newark, N.J.; Bridgeport, Conn.; and Baltimore
  • Southeast -- Atlanta; Birmingham, Ala.; Knoxville, Tenn.; Louisville, Ky.; Charleston, W.V.; Raleigh-Durham, N.C.; and Winston-Salem, N.C.

  • Midwest -- Chicago; Cleveland; Cincinnati; St. Louis; and Detroit

  • Southwest -- Dallas-Ft. Worth; Houston; and Phoenix

  • West -- Los Angeles; San Diego; San Francisco; Sacramento, Calif.; Fresno, Calif.; Eugene, Ore.; Seattle; Provo, Utah; and Salt Lake City

Air Pollution Health Threats Growing

It's the first time the annual report included information on particle pollution, which occurs when microscopic particles are released into the air by power plant emissions, diesel exhaust, and agricultural and wood burning, among other sources. These fine particles are easily inhaled deep in the lungs where they can penetrate the body's defense systems.

"Particle pollution is like an invisible army, wreaking havoc on your body through complicated mechanisms we're still sorting out," says Norman H. Edelman, MD, the American Lung Association's consultant for scientific affairs, in a news release. "Studies link particle pollution to increased risk of asthma attacks, heart attacks and strokes, lung cancer, and premature death, to name just a few of the ways this tiny army attacks."

The report shows particle pollution is now a widespread problem and is most prevalent in larges areas in the East, Midwest, and in California. In fact, 11 Midwestern cities ranked among 25 worst for year-round particle pollution levels, and six were in the 25 worst for short-term particle pollution.

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The 25 best and worst metropolitan areas in terms of year-round particle pollution were:

Areas Most Polluted by Particle Pollution

Cleanest Cities for Particle Pollution

Rank

Metropolitan Area

Rank

Metropolitan Area

1

Los-Angeles-Long Beach-Riverside, CA

1

Santa Fe-Espanola, NM

2

Visalia-Porterville, CA

2

Honolulu, HI

3

Bakersfield, CA

3

Cheyenne, WY

4

Fresno-Madera, CA

4

Great Falls, MT

5

Pittsburgh-New Castle, PA

5

Farmington, NM

6

Detroit-Warren-Flint, MI

5

Anchorage, AK

7

Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Gainesville, GA

5

Albuquerque, NM

8

Cleveland-Akron-Elyria, OH

8

Bismarck, ND

9

Hanford-Corcoran, CA

9

Kennewick-Richland-Pasco, WA

9

Birmingham-Hoover-Cullman, AL

10

Lubbock-Levelland, TX

11

Cincinnati-Middletown-Wilmington, OH-KY-IN

10

Billings, MT

12

Knoxville-Sevierville-La Follette, TN

12

Idaho Falls-Blackfoot, ID

13

Weirton-Steubenville, WV-OH

13

Grand Junction, CO

14

Chicago-Naperville-Michigan City, IL-IN

13

Colorado Springs, CO

15

Canton-Massillon, OH

15

Bellingham, WA

16

Charleston, WV

16

Rapid City, SD

17

Modesto, CA

16

Fargo-Wahpeton, ND-MN

18

New York-Newark-Bridgeport, NY-NJ--CT

18

Pueblo, CO

19

Merced, CA

19

Fort Collins-Loveland, CO

20

St. Louis-St. Charles-Farmington, MO-IL

20

Salem, OR

21

Washington-Baltimore-Northern Virginia, DC-MD-VA

21

Duluth, MN-WI

22

Louisville-Elizabethtown-Scottsburg, KY-IN

22

Albany-Corvallis-Lebanon, OR

23

York-Hanover-Gettysburg, PA

23

Salinas, CA

24

Lancaster, PA

24

Cape Coral-Fort Myers, FL

25

Columbus-Marion-Chillicothe, OH

25

Port St. Lucie-Fort Pierce, FL

Previous reports were based on traditional air analysis of ozone air pollution. Ozone pollutant, or smog, is created from the action of sunlight and heat on vapors and noxious gases from fuel combustion, such as automobile exhaust systems, power plants, and other sources. When it is inhaled it reacts with tissues in the body and causes irritation, shortness of breath, pain when breathing deeply, wheezing, coughing, and an increased risk of lung infections.

Reducing Air Pollution Risks

Researchers say although ozone and particle pollution can threaten anyone's health over the long term, certain groups of people face greater health risks, including:

These groups may be the first to feel the effects of air pollution and should take extra steps to protect themselves. Those measures include:

  • Check the daily air quality levels and air pollution forecasts. Many weather reports include this information, and they are also available online at www.epa.gov/airnow.
  • Be aware of smog levels during hot weather. Ozone smog peaks during the spring and summer months from May to October.

  • If the day's ozone level is unhealthy, adjust activities for the day to reduce exposure to outdoor air. Avoid vigorous activity outdoors or plan the most strenuous activity early in the morning before ozone levels climb.

  • If the day's particle pollution levels are high, adjust the day's plan to stay away from high-traffic areas and avoid exercising in these areas.

  • Take steps to reduce particle pollution at home, such as eliminate smoking indoors, vent all gas or other combustion appliances directly to the outdoors, and do not burn wood.

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Healthy persons can also help fight the effects of ozone pollution by filling up the gas tank after dusk on hot summer days since gasoline vapors react with sunlight, and using public transportation when possible, especially on high ozone or "ozone alert" days.

The report was based on air quality measurements made by state and local agencies and reported to the Environmental Protection Agency for the years 2000 to 2002. For more information on the report, visit www.lungusa.org.

WebMD Health News Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on April 29, 2004

Sources

SOURCES: American Lung Association State of the Air: 2004, April 29, 2004. News release, American Lung Association.

© 2004 WebMD, Inc. All rights Reserved.

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