We’ve already seen smog envelop Beijing, and London smash the yearly limit for air pollution in just a matter of days, and now it seems that the United States isn’t immune from dangerous levels of pollution either. A new report shows that over 166 million Americans are at risk, and that despite general increases in air quality across the United States, over half of the population are still exposed to dangerous levels of pollution, with many cities in California taking the top spots.
The annual “State of the Air” report, published by the American Lung Association, focuses on the two most widespread constituents of air pollution: ozone and particle pollution. Ozone, which was brought to the world’s attention when the layer in the upper atmosphere was found to be depleted, also has major health implications if inhaled. Produced when precursors emitted during the burning of fossil fuel are hit with UV light, ozone has been linked to asthma, bronchitis, heart attacks, and premature death.
Particle pollution, also known as particulates, is made up of tiny pieces of ash, liquid, and soot among other solid bits produced when burning fossil fuels, and can lead to a range of health problems such as lung cancer, cardiovascular disease, and premature delivery. The report has found that the levels of both ozone and particulates have different trends.
The short-term spikes of particulates levels across the U.S. have seemingly gotten worse since last year, and the researchers suspect that this is related to weather patterns such as drought and wildfire, which obviously releases a lot of soot and ash. The city that recorded the worst levels of particulates was Bakersfield, California.
The major drivers of particulate levels, drought, and wildfire do not mean that fossil fuels are exempt from blame. The report details how these weather patterns are heavily influenced by climate change, which “has contributed to the extraordinarily high numbers of days with unhealthy particulate matter.” The changing climate, as we all know by now, is being fast forwarded by the burning of fossil fuels and the trapping of heat by CO2 in Earth’s atmosphere.
“Thanks to cleaner power plants and cleaner vehicles, we see a continued reduction of ozone and year-round particle pollution in the 2016 'State of the Air' report,” explains Harold Wimmer, National President and CEO of the American Lung Association. “However, climate change has increased the challenges to protecting public health. There are still nearly 20 million people in the United States that live with unhealthful levels of all three measures of air pollution the report tracks: ozone, short-term and year-round particle pollution.”
The way to reduce this threat, and increase the health of the population is a depressingly familiar one. The report concludes that we need to continue to fight against climate change, and reduce our reliance on the heavily polluting fossil fuels. Only then will millions of Americans be able to breathe easy again.