American Lung Association’s annual air quality report finds nearly half of Americans breathing unhealthy air; Burlington-South Burlington-Barre metro area is one of only two cities nationwide ranking on the “Cleanest Cities” lists for all three measures.
Vermont Business Magazine The American Lung Association’s 2020 “State of the Air” report found Burlington-South Burlington-Barre metro area is 1 of only 2 cities nationwide ranking on the cleanest cities list for nation’s most widespread air pollutants—ozone and particle pollution—both of which can be deadly. In fact, the only counties in the state to have experienced any increase in these air pollutants is Bennington whose grade on ozone declined from a B to a C, and Chittenden which saw its total year-round particles increase slightly but remained within national standards maintaining its passing grade.
The Lung Association’s annual air quality “report card” tracks Americans’ exposure to unhealthful levels of particle pollution and ozone during a three-year period. As the country continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, improving air quality is more important than ever – as studies have shown air pollution harms lung health, and emerging research links long-term exposure to particle pollution to increases in the death rate among COVID-19 patients.
Once again, the report found that nearly half of all Americans were exposed to unhealthy air in 2016-2018.
"For many Americans, the COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated just how important lung health really is," said Dr. Charles Irvin, Member of the American Lung Association’s Vermont Leadership Board and Professor at The University of Vermont’s College of Medicine. "There is no short cut, no alternative to breathing. We must do more to protect our lungs from anything that puts our ability to breathe at risk, be it a virus, tobacco smoke, or air pollution."
“This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Clean Air Act, which has been responsible for dramatic improvements in air quality. Vermont residents are seeing these benefits, and breathing less unhealthy air,” said Lance Boucher, Senior Division Director of State Public Policy for the American Lung Association in Vermont. ”Unfortunately, not everyone lives in Vermont – and with nearly half of Americans breathing unhealthy air, our ‘State of the Air’ report shows that nationally, because of climate change, the nation is heading in the wrong direction when it comes to protecting public health.”
Each year the “State of the Air” provides a report card on the two most widespread outdoor air pollutants, ozone pollution, also known as smog, and particle pollution, also called soot.
The report analyzes particle pollution in two ways: through average annual particle pollution levels and short-term spikes in particle pollution.
Both ozone and particle pollution are dangerous to public health and can increase the risk of premature death and other serious health effects such as asthma attacks, cardiovascular damage, and developmental and reproductive harm. Particle pollution can also cause lung cancer, and new research links air pollution to the development of serious diseases, such as asthma and dementia.
This year’s report covers 2016, 2017 and 2018, the years with the most recent quality-assured data available collected by states, cities, counties, tribes and federal agencies. Notably, those three years were among the five hottest recorded in global history. Rising temperatures lead to increased levels of ozone pollution.
Changing climate patterns also fuel wildfires and their dangerous smoke, which increase particle pollution. Ozone and particle pollution threaten everyone, especially children, older adults and people living with a lung disease. Although this report does not cover data from 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the impact of air pollution on lung health is of heightened concern. Learn more about that at Lung.org/covid-19.
Nearly five in ten people—150 million Americans or approximately 45.8 percent of the population—live in counties with unhealthy ozone or particle pollution (at least one F).
That represents an increase from the past three reports: it is higher than the 141.1 million in the 2019 report (covering 2015-2017), 133.9 million in the 2018 report (covering 2014-2016) and 125 million in the 2017 report (covering 2013-2015). More than 20.8 million people, or 6.4 percent of the population, live in the 14 counties that failed all three measures.
Los Angeles remains the city with the worst ozone pollution in the nation, as it has for 20 years of the 21-year history of the report. Bakersfield, CA, returned to the most polluted slot for year-round particle pollution, while Fresno-Madera-Hanford, CA, returned to its rank as the city with the worst short-term particle pollution.
This shows growing evidence that a changing climate is making it harder to protect human health. All three years ranked among the five hottest years in history, increasing high ozone days and widespread wildfires, putting millions more people at risk and adding challenges to the work cities are doing across the nation to clean up.
Rollbacks of EPA cleanup rules and reduced Clean Air Act enforcement are further adding to these air quality challenges.
This marks the fourth report in a row that worsening air quality threatened the health of more people, despite other protective measures being in place.
Climate change clearly drives the conditions that increase these pollutants. The nation must do more to address climate change and to protect communities from these growing risks to public health.
Compared to the 2019 report, Burlington continued to experience zero unhealthy days of high ozone in this year’s report. Bennington County was the only county that experience an increase in ozone, resulting in a drop in grade, from a B to a C. Others remained unchanged As from last year.
“Ozone pollution can harm even healthy people, but is particularly dangerous for children, older adults and people with lung diseases like COPD or asthma,” said Dr. Irvin. “Breathing ozone-polluted air can trigger asthma attacks in both adults and children with asthma, which can land them in the doctor’s office or the emergency room. Ozone can even shorten people’s lives.”
This report documents that warmer temperatures brought by climate change are making ozone more likely to form and harder to clean up. Significantly more people suffered unhealthy ozone pollution in the 2020 report than in the last three “State of the Air” reports.
“State of the Air” 2020 found that year-round particle pollution levels in Burlington’s metro area, as well as in Chittenden county, increased by an insignificant amount since last year’s report.
“Particle pollution can lodge deep in the lungs and can even enter the bloodstream. It can trigger asthma attacks, heart attacks and strokes and cause lung cancer,” said Dr. Irvin. Particle pollution comes from coal-fired power plants, diesel emissions, wildfires and wood-burning devices.
“Year-round particle pollution levels had dropped in recent years thanks to the cleanup of coal-fired power plants and the retirement of old, dirty diesel engines. However, the increase we’ve seen nationally in particle pollution in this year’s report is a troubling reminder that we must increase our efforts to reduce this dangerous pollution,” said Boucher.
“State of the Air” 2020 also tracked short-term spikes in particle pollution, which can be extremely dangerous and even lethal. The report found that Burlington’s days when short-term particle pollution reached unhealthy levels remained at zero, while Rutland Vermont’s grade went from a C to an A.
“We all have the right to breathe clean, healthy air. The 50th anniversary of the Clean Air Act serves as a critical reminder that Americans breathe healthier air today because of this landmark law,” said Boucher. “At the same time, this year’s report shows that we must stand up for clean air – especially to safeguard our most vulnerable community members. Our leaders, both here in Vermont and at the federal level, must take immediate, significant action to ward off climate change and other threats to the quality of the air we all breathe.”
Four cities rank on all three cleanest cities lists for ozone, year-round particle pollution and short-term particle pollution. They had zero high ozone or high particle pollution days and are among the 25 cities with the lowest year-round particle levels. All four repeat their ranking on this list. Listed alphabetically, these cities are:
Burlington-South Burlington, VT
Urban Honolulu, HI
Nine other cities rank among the cleanest cities for both year-round and short-term levels of particle pollution. That means they had no days in the unhealthy level for short-term particle pollution and are on the list of the cleanest cities for year-round particle pollution. Listed alphabetically below, they are:
Gainesville-Lake City, FL
Grand Island, NE
Palm Bay-Melbourne-Titusville, FL
Sioux Falls, SD
St. George, UT
Seventeen other cities rank among the cleanest for ozone and short-term particle pollution. That means they had no days in the unhealthy level for ozone or for short-term particle pollution. Listed alphabetically below, they are:
Bowling Green-Glasgow, KY
Corpus Christi-Kingsville-Alice, TX
Fort Smith, AR-OK
La Crosse-Onalaska, WI-MN
Five cities rank on both lists for ozone and year-round particle pollution levels. These cities had no days in the unhealthy level for ozone pollution and are on the list of the cleanest cities for year-round particle pollution. Listed alphabetically below, they are:
While the report examined data from 2016-2018, this 21st annual report also provides air pollution trends back to the first report. Learn more about air quality across Vermont and the nation, in the 2020 “State of the Air” report at Lung.org/sota. For media interested in speaking with an expert about lung health, healthy air, and threats to air quality, contact Jennifer Solomon at Jennifer.Solomon@Lung.org or 516-680-8927.
About the American Lung Association
The American Lung Association is the leading organization working to save lives by improving lung health and preventing lung disease through education, advocacy and research. The work of the American Lung Association is focused on four strategic imperatives: to defeat lung cancer; to champion clean air for all; to improve the quality of life for those with lung disease and their families; and to create a tobacco-free future. For more information about the American Lung Association, a holder of the coveted 4-star rating from Charity Navigator and a Gold-Level GuideStar Member, or to support the work it does, call 1-800-LUNGUSA (1-800-586-4872) or visit: Lung.org.
Source: Williston, VT (April 21, 2020) – The American Lung Association