How bad is pollution in the U.S.? Over 40 percent of Americans, more than 137 million people, live in places that the American Lung Association’s State of the Air 2022 report rates as having failing grades for unhealthy particle pollution or ozone.
The pollution continues worsening, with 2.1 million more people breathing polluted air than in last year’s report. Daily spikes impacted nearly nine million more people in particle pollution than last year. Climate change is the top reason why. The three years covered by this year’s report ranked among the seven hottest years on record globally. Wildfires and extreme heat increase particle pollution and ozone.
The disparity between eastern and western regions
There is a widening disparity between the air quality in the western and eastern states. In 2022, 96 counties in 15 states received failing grades for short-term particle pollution, and 86 were in 11 western states. In 2007, 136 counties in 36 states received failing grades for short-term particle pollution, and 31 counties were in seven western states. The data for year-round particle pollution is similar.
California continues to have the most cities on the most-ozone polluted list, with 11 of the 25 most-polluted cities. Southwestern cities are in most of the remaining spots. Only three of the worst 25 cities for ozone pollution are east of the Mississippi River. A report by EDF found that across the West, most days between March and August 2021 had unhealthy ozone levels. The State of the Air report attributes ozone pollution in the Southwest to oil and gas extraction and population growth.
Most cities with the worst short-term particle pollution are in the West. Only one city among the worst for short-term particle pollution is not in the West, and 11 were in California. Year-round particle pollution has more non-western cities on the list, but 15 of the 25 are in the West. Eight of them are in California. The report cites wildfires as why western cities see more year-round particle pollution.
People most affected by pollution
People of color are 3.6 times more likely than white people to live in a county with failing grades in all three types of pollution. They are also 61 percent more likely than white people to live in a county with a failing grade for at least one pollutant. While almost 19.8 million Americans live in the 14 counties that failed all three measures, 14.1 million are people of color. Almost 10 million Latinx live in counties with failing grades on all three criteria. Over 15.9 million people with incomes meeting the federal poverty definition live in counties that received a failing grade for at least one measure. Over 2.6 million people live in counties failing all three measures.
The most polluted region
California’s Central Valley, comprised of the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys, is one of the most polluted regions in the country. Of the fourteen counties that received a failing grade for all three pollution measures, eight are in the San Joaquin Valley, comprising all of the Valley.
Valley cities rank in the top 10 in all three categories. Bakersfield and Visalia rank in the two and three spots for ozone, while Fresno, Madera, and Hanford all share the fourth spot. Sacramento and Roseville share the ninth spot. Bakersfield is in the top spot for year-round particle pollution, while Fresno, Madera, Hanford, and Visalia share the second spot. Fresno, Madera, and Hanford share the number one spot for short-term particle pollution, while Bakersfield is in the number two spot. Sacramento and Roseville share the seventh spot.
Geography accounts for most of the Central Valley’s pollution. Mountains surround three sides, trapping pollution, with no sea air to blow it out. The pollution from agriculture and oil production remains trapped in the Valley. The Central Valley produces around half of the nation’s produce and all of its almonds and raisins. California is the top state for dairy production, and most of that production occurs in the Valley. Kern County in the Valley ranks seventh in the top oil-producing counties in the U.S.