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Clean Air Act Working, But 42 Percent of Americans Still Breathe Dangerous Air

The American Lung Association released their annual State of the Air report. In general, it says that the air is cleaner than it was a decade ago, thanks to the Clean Air Act. Despite this progress, over 131 million Americans live in areas where the air can often be too dangerous to breathe.

This year’s report showcases the levels of ozone and particle pollution from official monitoring sites in the United States from 2009-2011. Though it has the most current and complete data, it does not represent a full picture of every county in America because less than one-third even have air monitors. The report recommends that all counties get monitors for this reason. Still, this state-by-state map of each state’s air report card is a helpful tool to find out how clean the air is in a particular region.

Many places in the U.S. “made strong progress over 2008-2010, particularly in lower year-round levels of particle pollution.” This was largely due to reductions in coal power plant emissions and cleaner diesel fuels, and occurred as the economy started to improve.

The ALA report identified carbon pollution as a major source of dirty air:

Power plants are the largest stationary source of greenhouse gases in the United States. Energy production accounts for 86 percent of total 2009 greenhouse gas emissions, and the electric sector represents 39 percent of all energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. In 2012, the EPA proposed the first ever limits on carbon pollution from new power plants. Now the EPA needs to finish the job and issue strong final standards for carbon pollution from new and existing plants.

Here are some takeaways from the report:


  • The Clean Air Act cleans the air: Cleaning up air pollution produces healthier air. This seems like a no-brainer, yet the Clean Air Act is constantly under siege.
  • Polluters fail 42 percent of Americans: 131.8 million people live in a state where air gets an F, while 24.8 million live where air gets all Fs.
  • Ozone pollution: More than half of the worst (15 of 27) cities improved their ozone pollution over the past report — many of these are in California. Still, 12 of the 27 had more unhealthy days, including several in Texas and Oklahoma.
  • Year-round particle pollution: California cities were again well-represented on the most-improved list. Sixteen cities had their lowest year-round particle pollution levels ever recorded. In December 2012, EPA strengthened year-round particle pollution limits following legal action by the American Lung Association.
  • Short-term particle pollution worsened: The report found that while some cities made improvements in short-term particle pollution (again mainly in California), most experienced more harmful spikes. “Of the 25 cities with the worst problem with spikes in particle pollution, fourteen had more days or worse problems in 2009-2011 than in the previous report.”
  • Top of the list: The cleanest cities — those that experienced no unhealthy days for smog or short-term pollution and were rated well on low long-term particle pollution: Bismarck (ND), Cape Coral-Fort Myers (FL), Palm Bay-Melbourne-Titusville (FL), Rapid City (SD).

What can Americans do to improve their air? The ALA says, essentially, to stop burning dirty things. They recommend cleaning dirty power plants, updating fuel emissions standards, using less electricity, cleaning up dirty diesel vehicles, driving less, and reducing the amount of burned wood and trash. All of these things contribute to air pollution. We can cut carbon pollution by one-third by closing the “carbon loophole” in the Clean Air Act.

While some pollution levels have improved, and things are not as bad as the smog in Beijing, the report clearly states that the U.S. has much more to do to reliably take a breath of fresh air.

Joseph Romm's picture

Thank Joseph for the Post!

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