US air quality remains 'very unhealthy' and 'hazardous' for millions of Americans, new report says

Doyle Rice
  • About 137 million Americans continue to live with unhealthy levels of air pollution, according to a new report from the American Lung Association.
  • Western cities, primarily in California, again dominated the list of most polluted metro areas.

The nation's air remains at unhealthy levels for millions of Americans, in part because of climate-change-driven wildfires, according to a report released Thursday by the American Lung Association.

The report, called State of the Air 2022, "shows that an unacceptable number of Americans are still living in areas with poor air quality that could impact their health,” Harold Wimmer, the association's national president and CEO, said in a statement.

The 23rd annual report also shows there were more days with “very unhealthy” and “hazardous” air quality than ever before in the two-decade history of the report. 

In fact, despite some improvements in air quality over the past 50 years, about 137 million Americans continue to live with unhealthy levels of air pollution, the report found. "There are still far too many days of far too many people breathing polluted air," Paul Billings, the national senior vice president for public policy at the lung association, told USA TODAY. 

Los Angeles city skyline as heavy smog shrouds the city on May 31, 2015. The city was determined to be the nation's smoggiest in a new report from the American Lung Association on April 21, 2022.

The report deals with the two main types of air pollution: smog (also known as ground-level ozone) and soot (technically known as "particulate matter").

Smog forms on warm, sunny days and is made worse by chemicals that exit vehicle tailpipes and power plant and industrial smokestacks. Warmer temperatures make ozone more likely to form. Ground-level ozone pollution is a powerful respiratory irritant whose effects have been likened to a "sunburn of the lung." 

Soot pollution is deadlier and more of a health hazard than smog, causing more premature deaths and lung cancer, the lung association said.

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The report, which was based on data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, covers the years 2018, 2019 and 2020. The lung association said that regardless of the pandemic-related shutdowns in early 2020, there was no obvious improvement in air quality during that time.

Although there has been long-term improvement in the nation’s air quality thanks to decades of work to reduce emissions, it has been offset in part by hotter, drier conditions caused by climate change, the lung association said.

Wildfires, worsened in part by climate change, were responsible for a sharp rise in particle pollution spikes in several states in the western U.S. Overall, the report finds that 2.1 million more Americans live in counties with unhealthy air compared with last year’s report, and exposure to deadly soot has gotten worse. 

"In addition, communities of color are disproportionately exposed to unhealthy air," Wimmer said. "The report found that people of color were 61% more likely than white people to live in a county with a failing grade for at least one pollutant."

Western cities, primarily in California, again dominated the list of most polluted metro areas: The smoggiest U.S. city was Los Angeles, and the cities where soot pollution were worst included Bakersfield (for year-round particle pollution) and Fresno (for short-term particle pollution.)

What's the solution to improving air quality?

"We need to get serious about moving away from burning fossil fuels," Billings said, adding that climate change is still the most serious threat to the nation's air quality.