For all the—very necessary—focus on the 21st century problems of climate change and shifting to a cleaner energy economy, we’re still beset by industrial pollution that hasn’t changed a whole lot since the 19th century. Air pollution—from smog to sooty particulates—is still a major health threat to much of the country. How much? According to the American Lung Association’s (ALA) just-released State of the Air 2011 report, a little over half of all Americans—154.2 million people—live in areas where levels of ozone and particulate pollution make it sometimes unhealthy to breathe. Cars and trucks, fossil-fueled power plants, factories—they all contribute to making our air dangerous.
The news is especially bad if you live in California. 8 out of the 10 most polluted cities in the U.S. are in the Golden State, where some of the most gorgeous nature in the country has long coexisted with heavy industry, smoggy weather and lots of polluting automobiles. Worst of all is the city of Bakersfield, where there are over 50,000 asthma cases out of a population of 800,000. Los Angeles is a close second, with Visalia and Fresno high on the list as well. Outside California, cities like Pittsburgh, Houston and Salt Lake City all have air pollution problems, while Honolulu and Santa Fe have the cleanest air in the country. You can find out where you own city ranks here.
The good news is that on the whole, air pollution in the U.S. is steadily improving. The report notes that all 25 cities in the most polluted by ozone showed improvement over the previous data, and all but two of the 25 cities most polluted with year-round particulates also showed improvement. Charles D. Connor, ALA’s CEO, said in a statement:
State of the Air tells us that the progress the nation has made cleaning up coal-fired power plants, diesel emissions and other pollution sources has drastically cut dangerous pollution from the air we breathe. We owe our cleaner air to the Clean Air Act. We have proof that cleaning up pollution results in healthier air to breathe.
As Connor points out, however, that progress isn’t inevitable—and it can be reversed. Budget cuts from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have hit the states, resulting in the loss of $112 million for state clean air agencies. Conservatives in Congress—mostly Republicans but a handful of Democrats as well—have attacked the Clean Air Act itself, seeking both to block the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases under the law, but also limiting the agency’s ability to strengthen control of traditional pollutants for public health reasons. That’s not a popular position: a poll released by ALA in February found strong bipartisan support of the Clean Air Act and EPA’s work in regulating pollutants.
The reduction in air pollution over the past 40 years—even as economy and population have grown—really is one of the great victories of the environmental movement. Even in cities like Los Angeles that still score high on pollution, the air is nothing like the hellish smog experienced decades ago. But that success doesn’t mean it’s time to end the clean air war—not when people are still dying from pollution.