Pollution Reporters: State of the Air Report from the American Lung Association

Every year the American Lung Association releases a report on air quality with the title, “State of the Air”. This report lists the cities in the United States with the worst levels of pollution and highlights some of the health problems that the pollution causes in communities both near to and far from those cities.

It also lists the areas with the best air quality. The report ranks cities and/or counties based on three different types of air pollution after tracking air quality for three years. With the information shared in this report, air quality professionals can make recommendations about how to improve the air quality that you and I live with.


Smog in LA – Image Credit

How Are the Cities Chosen?

One of the first things that I wondered relative to the ten most polluted cities ranked by the ALA was how those cities were chosen. Some reports of polluted areas will include the quality of water for cleaning and drinking or the degree of heavy metals in the soil. The reports generated about Chernobyl include levels of radioactive fallout. The State of the Air report produced by the American Lung Association is based on ozone pollution, year-long particle pollution, and short-term particle pollution.

  • Ozone is formed when three oxygen atoms combine through a chemical reaction between nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds. The ozone at ground-level occurs mainly because of human activity and will harm the health of you and me and all of the other living things around us.  For 2013, the top 5 worse cities by ozone pollution were in California–starting with Los Angeles and followed by  Visalia-Porterville, Bakersfield-Delano, Fresno-Madera, and Hanford-Corcoran.
  • The year-long particle pollution score is calculated based on information from the EPA, or Environmental Protection Agency. These scores are based on a compilation of measurements taken by various experts over the three-year period.  Again, California lead the charge with the 5 most polluted cities in terms of year-long particle pollution:  Bakersfield-Delano / Merced, Fresno-Madera, Hanford-Corcoran,  Los Angeles-Long Beach-Riverside, and Modesto.
  • Short-term particle pollution is measured in the same way. Both of these scores are based on the many different liquid or solid particles in the air that we breathe every day. The specific particles making up the pollution vary from one area of the country to another.  The top 5 worst cities by this metric:  Bakersfield-Delano, Fresno-Madera, Hanford-Corcoran, Los Angeles-Long Beach-Riverside, and Modesto.

Who Is Affected the Most?

It scared me a little to learn that about 13, 000 people die every year because of particle pollution specifically from power plants. This doesn’t even include pollution from other industries, poor water quality, personal smoking habits, or other areas of pollution. There are some groups of people who are at greater risk than others. These groups include anyone with a cardiovascular disease, asthma, diabetes, or chronic lung disease. Families and individuals living in poverty also tend to be at greater risk than the rest of the population. As with other diseases, the very young and the very old could be more readily affected.

Which Particles are Hazardous?

According to the American Lung Association, some of the air pollution that we expose ourselves to can lead to hospitalization or even an early death. Some of the gases, aerosols, and toxins in ground level ozone are poisonous. Much of the particulate matter measured by the ALA isn’t toxic on its own, or in small amounts, but will become dangerous in elevated levels. For this reason, it’s important to pay attention to air quality reports. Particulates may be from naturally occurring sources, such as volcanoes, forest fires, or living plant life. The particulate matter created by humans most often come from the burning of fossil fuels and the creation of aerosols.

What Do We Have To Fear?

Looking at the air out my front window, I can’t see any visible pollution. Unfortunately, poor air quality can often be missed with the naked eye, but even without being seen, the health hazards of air pollution can be dramatic. There are many respiratory problems associated with breathing in ground level ozone, for example:

  • Asthma, emphysema, or bronchitis
  • Inflammation of lung tissue
  • Weakening of the immune system
  • Increased coughing or nausea
  • Throat irritation and congestion
  • Heart and lung disease
  • Cancer

Clearly, what we can’t see WILL hurt us.

What Can We Do About It?

The American Lung Association recommends driving less and walking more, reducing your level of electricity consumption, and encouraging your community leaders to pass measures which benefit air quality. The EPA provides suggestions to business owners and other groups concerning steps they can take to improve air quality. Some of these steps include modifying processes, substituting materials used during business operation, and recycling materials.

The Importance of Improving the Quality of Our Air

Poor air quality affects the health of everyone who breathes it in. Unfortunately, the negative health effects may stick with those people for many years even after moving to a cleaner environment. While the work of an individual can make a localized change, it will take the work of many individuals to bring about the changes necessary to ensure that everyone can enjoy clean air.


  1. See the full report:  here

Lauren Hill

Lauren Hill is a wife, mother and freelance writer. She writes on a wide array of topics from healthcare and healthy living to business marketing and social media. She spends her free time gardening, being a taxi driver for her kids and blogging at: www.laurenqhill.com

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