The Most Polluted Cities in America

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This week the American Lung Association released its annual “State of the Air” report, which ranks the most polluted cities in the country. If you live in California, you may want to take a seat.

The ALA ranks the cities in three categories: ozone levels, short-term particle pollution and year-round particle pollution. We’ll look at the five most polluted cities, the vast majority of which are located in California, within each of these categories.

But first, let’s take a closer look at the measurements used in the study.

You’ve probably heard of ozone before, and if you remember the 80s and 90s, there was a lot of talk about the ozone layer disappearing, which was a bad thing. But it turns out that too much ozone isn’t good either.

According to the report, “Basically, the ozone layer found high in the upper atmosphere (the stratosphere) is beneficial because it shields us from much of the sun’s ultraviolet radiation. However, ozone air pollution at ground level where we can breathe it (in the troposphere) is harmful. It causes serious health problems.”

Ozone is created as a result of a chemical reaction between other pollutants in our atmosphere and it is the primary ingredient in smog. The study notes that ozone can even be deadly.

“Three groups of researchers working independently reviewed and analyzed the research around deaths associated with short-term exposures to ozone. The three teams—at Harvard, Johns Hopkins and New York University—used different approaches but all came to similar conclusions. All three studies reported a small, but robust association between daily ozone levels and increased deaths”


Particle pollution, on the other hand, though a component of ozone, refers directly to the stuff that comes  out of the tailpipes of our cars and our factories’ smokestacks. It is made up of tiny liquid and solid elements of varying shapes and sizes.

The size is important, according to the study. We cough or sneeze out some of the bigger particles, but smaller ones can get stuck in our lungs and the smallest pass right through our lungs and into our blood stream. As you can guess, this stuff can be bad for you too.

“Particle pollution can be very dangerous to breathe. Breath¬ing particle pollution may trigger illness, hospitalization and premature death,” the study says.

Furthermore, these particles can have an immediate effect on health, which is why the rankings include both short-term and year-round particle pollution rates.

According to the study, “Short-term exposure to particle pollution can kill. Peaks or spikes in particle pollution can last for hours to days. Deaths can occur on the very day that particle levels are high, or within one to two months afterward. Particle pol¬lution does not just make people die a few days earlier than they might otherwise—these are deaths that would not have occurred if the air were cleaner.”

Long-term effects can be even more troubling. The study says that people who are regularly exposed to particle pollutants will die one to three years earlier than those who aren’t.

The study also cites a report released in California that says 18,000 residents of the state die prematurely because of particle pollution every year.

On that happy note, let’s now turn to the rankings.

The worst ozone levels:
1.    Los Angeles, Long Beach & Riverside, Calif.
Number of Unhealthy Ozone Days, 2006-2008: 141.8

2.    Bakersfield, Calif.
Number of Unhealthy Ozone Days, 2006-2008: 115.7

3.    Visalia & Porterville, Calif.
Number of Unhealthy Ozone Days, 2006-2008: 110.2

4.    Fresno & Madera, Calif.
Number of Unhealthy Ozone Days, 2006-2008: 66.2

5.    Sacramento, Arden, Arcade & Yuba City, Calif. (area also includes parts of Nevada)
Number of Unhealthy Ozone Days, 2006-2008: 48.3

According to the ALA, an acceptable number of unhealthy ozone days would be about seven.


The worst year-round pollution:

1.    Phoenix, Mesa & Scottsdale, Ariz.
Year-round particle pollution levels  (micrograms per cubic meter), 2006-2008: 21.6

2.    Bakersfield, Calif.
Year-round particle pollution levels  (micrograms per cubic meter), 2006-2008: 21.5

3.    Los Angeles, Long Beach & Riverside, Calif.
Year-round particle pollution levels  (micrograms per cubic meter), 2006-2008: 19.7

4.    Visalia & Porterville, Calif.
Year-round particle pollution levels  (micrograms per cubic meter), 2006-2008: 19.7

5.    Pittsburgh & New Castle, Pa.
Year-round particle pollution levels  (micrograms per cubic meter), 2006-2008: 18.3

According to the ALA, an acceptable particle pollution levels are below 15 micrograms per cubic meter.


The worst short-term pollution:

1.    Bakersfield, Calif.
Number of days with unhealthy particle pollution levels: 55.2

2.    Fresno & Madera, Calif.
Number of days with unhealthy particle pollution levels: 53.3

3.    Pittsburgh & New Castle, Pa.
Number of days with unhealthy particle pollution levels: 45.5

4.    Los Angeles, Long Beach & Riverside, Calif.
Number of days with unhealthy particle pollution levels: 27.3

5.    Birmingham, Hoover & Cullman, Ala.
Number of days with unhealthy particle pollution levels: 25

According to the ALA, an acceptable number of unhealthy particle pollution days would be about three.

See the complete list of rankings here, and download the entire report here.


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