State of Our Air: Breathing Still Not Easy

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David McNew / Getty

Smog over Los Angeles.

State of the Air 2009
American Lung Association
179 pages

The Gist:
In its 10th annual report on air quality in the United States, the American Lung Association monitored sites across the nation from 2005 to 2007 in terms of ozone and particle pollution. Particle pollution, the lesser known of the two, refers to a mix of tiny solid and liquid particles (of varying sizes) in the air. The particles are visible only in the haze and smog we see but hard to keep out of our bodies because of their minuteness. The study describes, in part, how cities and counties fare when measured against EPA ozone pollution standards imposed in March 2008 (spoiler alert: not well), details the ways in which cities have improved or worsened, and provides recommendations for the future. (Read a Q&A with EPA head Lisa Jackson)

The Highlights:
The Dirty: Not surprisingly, California — a state beset by air pollution and struggling to amend its fuel-efficiency standards in order to stave off the effects of global warming — contained a good portion of the most-polluted counties and cities in America. Other highly polluted areas, such as the tri-state New York–Connecticut–New Jersey region and the Chicago area, also made it into the top 25 most air-polluted places. The charts — categorized by short-term particle pollution, year-round particle pollution and year-round ozone pollution — break down how many people afflicted by illnesses such as asthma and emphysema live in regions with the poorest air quality.

Top 5 Most Polluted Cities by Short-Term Particle Pollution:
1. Pittsburgh–New Castle, PA
2. Fresno–Madera, CA
3. Bakersfield, CA
4. Los Angeles–Long Beach–Riverside, CA
5. Birmingham–Hoover–Culman, AL

Top 5 Most Polluted Cities by Year-Round Particle Pollution:
1. Bakersfield, CA
2. Pittsburgh–New Castle, PA
3. Los Angeles–Long Beach–Riverside, CA
4. Visalia–Porterville, CA
5. Birmingham–Hoover–Culman, AL

Top 5 Most Ozone-Polluted Cities:
1. Los Angeles–Long Beach–Riverside, CA
2. Bakersfield, CA
3. Visalia–Porterville, CA
4. Fresno–Madera, CA
5. Houston–Baytown–Huntsville, TX

The Not-So Dirty: The lists of cleanest cities showed a bit more geographic variety, though there is a not-so-shocking abundance of Western and mountain states represented on the clean side — Portland, Maine being the lone Northeast representative on any of the clean lists. Cities like Redding, Salinas and Santa Barbara in California redeem the state's lackluster performance by falling on the lower end of a couple of the cleanest-cities charts.

Top 5 Cleanest Cities for Short-Term Particle Pollution:
1. Alexandra, LA
2. Amarillo, TX
3. Austin–Round Rock, TX
4. Bismarck, ND
5. Brownsville–Harlingen–Raymondville, TX

Top 5 Cleanest Cities for Long-Term Particle Pollution
1. Cheyenne, WY
2. Santa Fe–Espanola, NM
3. Honolulu, HI
4. Great Falls, MT
5. Farmington, NM

Top 5 Cleanest Cities for Ozone Pollution
1. Billings, MT
2. Carson City, NV
3. Coeur d'Alene, ID
4. Fargo–Wahpeton, ND-MN
5. Honolulu, HI

The Lowdown:
Any other year, the American Lung Association's report would be top news, but unfortunately, on its 10th anniversary, the State of the Air seems dwarfed by a much more sinister pollutant lingering in our atmosphere: swine flu ... or Mexico flu ... or flu flu — however you slice it, the toxins we breath every day seem ho-hum in the face of a potential pandemic. So despite the fact that some 58% of the U.S. population lives with unhealthful levels of ozone pollution and about 15% in areas with chronic levels of particle pollution, most Americans will not be fazed. While awareness and proactiveness in terms of addressing environmental problems has increased markedly with the new administration, much of the change remains to be seen.

The Verdict: Skim

Read "How to Deal with Swine Flu"

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