Up in the Air: The U.S.’s Most Polluted Cities

The results of the American Lung Association’s 2010 State of the Air report are disturbing enough to make you gasp: 28 million of us currently live in places where we’re breathing air that failed all three tests associated with the report, which measured American cities’ air for ground-level ozone air pollution, year-round particle pollution, and short-term particle pollution.

Cities such as Birmingham, Phoenix, and Los Angeles failed on all three instances and are among the most polluted. Washington, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, and San Diego failed two of the three categories.

The ALA defines ground-level ozone as the perfect storm of nitrogen oxides (like those coming from a tailpipe), combining in heat and sunlight with volatile organic compounds (chemicals from factories, plants, refineries, etc.). Essentially, the result is smog. They also measured cities’ short-term and year-round contact with particle pollution, which pertains to fine and ultra-fine particles, such as the kinds found in exhaust, which vary in dimension and range from the size of one-tenth of a strand of hair to a size only visible by microscope. One in 10 U.S. residents breathes in unhealthy levels of particle pollution year-round, which the body copes with similarly to how a pair of lungs responds to cigarettes.

The good news is this: last year, researchers saw a decrease in year-round particle pollution between the years of 1980 and 2000 in 51 U.S. cities. But just two American cities, Lincoln, Nebraska and Fargo, North Dakota, scored well in all three categories in this year’s report.

Tucson, Arizona, Billings, Montana, and Fort Collins, Colorado, also scored among some of the cleanest cities.

For a list of city and county rankings, visit ALA’s website where you can also plug in your zip code for a full report.

To improve the air we breathe, the ALA suggests taking public transportation, driving less and demanding that local school systems utilize buses that operate on clean fuel. The ALA is also vying for Congress to pass the Clean Air Act amendments of 2010 that could potentially do the following:

a.    Reduce fossil-fuel power plant emissions of sulfur dioxide by 80 percent.
b.    Establish a mercury standard requiring a 90 percent decrease of mercury emissions from fossil-fuel power plants.
c.    Cut power-plant emissions of nitrogen oxides by 50 percent.

To view the bill in full, click here. To send a message to the Senate, which has been introduced to the bill, click here.

Photo: Duluth, Minn., by Aaron Molina

via Flikr. Duluth ranked 13th in the Top 25 Cleanest Cities for Year-Round Particle Pollution in the American Lung Association’s 2010 State of the Air Report.