More than one in three Americans live in areas with unhealthy levels of air pollution, according to a recent report by the American Lung Association. The State of the Air 2023 analyzed particle and ozone pollution nationwide.
Almost 36 percent of Americans (119.6 million people) live in areas with failing grades for ozone or particle pollution levels. Around half a million more people lived in counties that earned an “F” for unhealthy increases in particulate air pollution. That is more than in any of the last eight reports. Seven of the 25 cities ranking high for fine particulate pollution posted their highest-ever average number of days with unhealthy levels. Nearly 18.8 Americans live in counties where year-round particle pollution levels do not meet the national air quality standard.
There is some good news. The number of Americans living in counties with failing grades for ozone decreased by over 19 million this year. A total of 39 counties in 23 states move off the “F” grade list. Eight states completely left the list. The number of counties with an “A” increased by 26 percent. There are 17.6 million fewer people living in counties with particle or ozone pollution than last year’s report due to decreasing ozone levels in many areas in the nation. Yet, it is not all good news. The number of people living in counties with failing grades for particle pollution was 63.7 million, the most reported under the national standard. Fewer counties got an F for ozone smog–less than any in the history of the State of the Air.
Air Pollution: East vs. West
There is a big divide between Eastern and Western cities regarding air pollution. In 2004, when short-term particle pollution was added to the report, 44 of the 106 counties with failing grades in the West. This year, all but eight of the 111 counties with an “F” are in the West. The results are similar for year-round particle pollution. In 2004, 20 of the 22 counties with a failing grade were in the West. In 2023, all of the 17 failing counties are in the West.
Most cities on the most ozone-polluted list were in the West and the Southwest. California had the most cities on the list. The rest of the cities were in the Southwest except New York, Chicago, and Hartford. Those three cities were the only ones on the list east of the Mississippi River. Over the past seven reports, nearly all cities on the list are in the West, with a few in the East.
Only two cities on the short-term particle pollution list were not in the West. Cities in California’s Central Valley topped the list, with Bakersfield and Visalia tied for the number two spot and Fresno in the second spot. The average number of days cities ranked the worst 25 experienced high short-term particle pollution levels increased by almost two days.
Climate change is the reason for the disparity between the East and West, which caused higher summer temperatures and drought. Wildfires in the West also contribute to the increase in air pollution. The three years covered by this year’s report ranked among the hottest years on record globally.