About 40% of Americans live with air pollution, study finds

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Nearly 40% of Americans are currently living in areas where air pollution levels are harmful to health, according to a recent “State of the Air” report from the American Lung Association.

Released this Wednesday, the report reveals an increase in the number of people affected by unhealthy air—from approximately 119 million in 2023 to 131 million today.

Harold Wimmer, President and CEO of the American Lung Association, expressed disappointment in the findings despite decades of progress in air quality improvement, largely attributed to the Clean Air Act.

“We have made significant strides in cleaning up air pollution over the last 25 years,” Wimmer stated. “However, it’s disheartening that we are still seeing over 130 million Americans breathing unhealthy air—a number we never envisioned when we first began reporting.”

Wimmer also highlighted the aggravating impact of climate change on air quality, emphasizing the increasing dangers posed by ozone and particulate matter.

“Climate change has intensified the risks, with extreme weather events like heatwaves, droughts, and wildfires contributing to deadly pollution levels, especially in the Western U.S.,” he explained.

The report, authored by Katherine Pruitt, Senior Director of Nationwide Clean Air Policy at the American Lung Association, points out a troubling trend in wildfire-related air pollution.

“The pollution from wildfire smoke is worsening each year due to climate change, posing a severe health threat,”

Pruitt told CNN. She noted that while air pollutants from traditional sources like cars and industries have substantially decreased since the Clean Air Act of 1970—dropping emissions by 78%—air quality issues persist, especially in the West due to increased oil and gas extraction and the frequent occurrence of wildfires.

The cities most affected by year-round particle pollution, according to the report, are primarily located in California, Oregon, and Arizona, with Bakersfield, California, topping the list.

These particles are so small that they bypass the body’s natural defenses, increasing the risk of death from diseases such as heart disease, respiratory illness, and lung cancer.

Pruitt remarked, “Particle pollution is particularly deadly. Not only are more people affected across more areas, but the intensity of particle pollution has reached unprecedented levels.”

The report also sheds light on the disproportionate impact of air pollution on minority communities.

Although minorities constitute about 42% of the U.S. population, they represent 52% of the individuals residing in counties with failing air quality grades. In the most polluted counties, 63% of the nearly 44 million inhabitants are from minority groups.

Dr. Lina Mu, an epidemiologist and associate professor at the University at Buffalo, emphasized the severe health consequences of poor air quality, particularly on vulnerable groups such as pregnant women, children, and individuals with chronic health conditions like asthma and heart disease.

“The enduring presence of unhealthy air could have profound implications on future generations,” Mu stated.

She advocated for comprehensive policies at various levels to effectively tackle the emission of pollutants, enforce stronger regulations, and address the challenges posed by climate change to improve air quality.

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