Report reveals worsening US air pollution, concerns over EPA weakening emissions regulations

A new report shows air pollution is getting worse in the US, and the current EPA’s efforts to weaken emissions regulations on cars and power plants are seen as a major threat to improving the state of affairs.

The American Lung Association released its 20th annual “State of the Air” report, which focuses on the years 2015-2017. In these years, “more cities had high days of ozone and short-term particle pollution compared to 2014-2016.” Many cities also suffered from increased levels of year-round particle pollution.

The report found that 141 million Americans — about 43% of the population — live in counties that have monitored unhealthy ozone and/or particle pollution. While that’s an increase from 2014-2016, it’s still a big improvement from 2012-2014, which saw 166 million Americans experience unhealthy pollution.

The American Lung Association attributes much of the progress to the Clean Air Act, which it notes must remain “intact and enforced.” On that note, it has concerns with the direction of the Environmental Protection Agency under the Trump Administration:

Unfortunately, this Administration has focused on steps to roll back or create loopholes in core healthy air protections put in place to comply with the Clean Air Act. These attacks began under the former U.S. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and have continued and expanded under the current Administrator, Andrew Wheeler. Not only has this Administration targeted specific Clean Air Act safeguards for rollbacks, it has also sought to weaken the scientific review and undermine the basis for current and future protections.

Major Threats

The report identifies a number of “key threats” toward halting the country’s progress toward cleaner air, first being the EPA’s efforts to “dismantle our nation’s best federal plan to limit carbon pollution from power plants, the Clean Power Plan.” The Lung Association says the Clean Power Plan, adopted in 2015, offers a “flexible, practical toolkit” for states to reduce carbon pollution from power plants.

Other threats identified are the EPA’s proposed steps to weaken methane regulations, and the plan to roll back fuel economy standards, which will lead to more pollution from cars and trucks. The association notes it “has strongly opposed these proposed rollbacks and recruited nearly 100 national, state and local health organizations to join comments to EPA in opposition.”

Climate change is further exacerbating the issues, as the Lung Association says it’s becoming “harder to protect human health.” Wildfires drove a spike in high ozone days and unhealthy particle pollution, and increasing temperatures likely led to the increase in ozone. The three years included in this report are the warmest on record. The report notes:

As climate change continues, cleaning up these pollutants will become ever more challenging. Climate change poses many threats to human health, including worsened air quality and extreme weather events. The nation must work to reduce emissions that worsen climate.

Most Polluted Cities

The report also includes a list of the worst polluted cities, and California cities dominate the lists showing long-term particle pollution and ozone pollution. In fact, Bakersfield, Los Angeles-Long Beach, San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland, and Fresno-Madera-Hanford all appear on the top ten lists for short-term particle pollution, long-term particle pollution and ozone pollution.

Top 10 US Cities Most Polluted by Short-Term Particle Pollution (24-hour PM2.5):

  1. Bakersfield, California
  2. Fresno-Madera-Hanford, California
  3. Fairbanks, Alaska
  4. San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland, California
  5. Missoula, Montana
  6. Yakima, Washington
  7. Los Angeles-Long Beach, California
  8. Salt Lake City-Provo-Orem, Utah
  9. Seattle-Tacoma, Washington
  10. Pittsburgh-New Castle-Weirton, Pennsylvania-Ohio-West Virginia

Top 10 US Cities Most Polluted by Year-Round Particle Pollution:

  1. Fresno-Madera-Hanford, California
  2. Bakersfield, California
  3. Fairbanks, Alaska
  4. Visalia, California
  5. Los Angeles-Long Beach, California
  6. San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland, California
  7. Pittsburgh-New Castle-Weirton, Pennsylvania-Ohio-West Virginia
  8. El Centro, California
  9. Cleveland-Akron-Canton, Ohio
  10. Medford-Grants Pass, Oregon

Top 10 Most Ozone-Polluted Cities:

  1. Los Angeles-Long Beach, California
  2. Visalia, California
  3. Bakersfield, California
  4. Fresno-Madera-Hanford, California
  5. Sacramento-Roseville, California
  6. San Diego-Chula Vista-Carlsbad, California
  7. Phoenix-Mesa, Arizona
  8. San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland, California
  9. Houston-The Woodlands, Texas
  10. New York-Newark, New York–New Jersey-Connecticut-Pennsylvania

Only six cities qualified for the report’s “Cleanest U.S. Cities” list — to do so, “a city must experience no high ozone or high particle pollution days and must rank among the 25 cities with the lowest year-round particle pollution levels during 2015-2017.”

Cleanest US Cities (in alphabetical order)

  1. Bangor, Maine
  2. Burlington-South Burlington, Vermont
  3. Honolulu, Hawaii
  4. Lincoln-Beatrice, Nebraska
  5. Palm Bay-Melbourne-Titusville, Florida
  6. Wilmington, North Carolina

Electrek’s Take

Air pollution, climate change, deploying renewable energy, and using clean electricity — it’s all tied together, and it all comes back to reducing emissions. The American Lung Association says “the nation urgently needs a system-wide reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and other sources” and it’s hard to put it more succinctly than that.

The report raises valid concerns about the current direction of the EPA, and things could again get worse in next year’s report before they get better. But the EPA can and will change directions again. States and cities are doing their part to reduce emissions, and we can do the same on a personal level.

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Phil Dzikiy is an Editor/Writer with Electrek/9to5Mac. Tips: