WEDNESDAY, April 27 (HealthDay News) -- About 154 million
Americans -- or more than half the U.S. population -- live in areas
where the air is so polluted that it is often dangerous to breathe,
a new report says.
Residents of Honolulu and Santa Fe-Espanola, N.M., on the other
hand, are in luck: Those two cities had air that is among the
country's cleanest -- and they were the only two in the nation that
had no days in which smog and soot levels reached unhealthy
In contrast, residents of California, which is famed for its
healthful lifestyle, are breathing some of the worst air.
California cities topped the list of U.S. cities with the worst
air pollution, according to "State of the Air 2011," the American
Lung Association's annual report on air quality, which was released
And about 48 percent of U.S. residents live in counties where
smog (ozone) is too high, 20 percent live in areas where there are
too many short-term spikes in pollution and 6 percent live in areas
with harmful year-round soot (particle pollution).
About 17 million Americans live in areas afflicted by all three
air pollution hazards.
This worries scientists since research suggests air pollution
threatens human health -- and not just the lungs.
On days in which smog levels spike, there's an increase in
hospital admissions for respiratory illnesses, heart attacks and
stroke in the two or three days following it, said Michael Jerrett,
a professor of environmental health sciences at University of
California, Berkeley's School of Public Health.
Besides posing both long-term and short-term risks, pollution
can contribute to low birth weights, diabetes, cardiovascular
disease, heart attack, stroke and, ultimately, shorter life spans,
This is due, in part, to insidious changes caused by chronic
exposure to pollution. According to Dr. Norman Edelman, chief
medical officer of the American Lung Association, small particles
of pollution can lodge deep in the lungs, triggering an
inflammatory process that, over time, can spread elsewhere in the
body and damage blood vessels and the heart.
The report found that the cities with the worst air include: Los
Angeles-Long Beach-Riverside; Bakersfield-Delano;
Visalia-Porterville; Fresno-Madera; Sacramento-Arden-Arcade-Yuba
City (Calif.-Nev.); Hanford-Corcoran; San Diego-Carlsbad-San
Marcos; and Merced -- all of which are in California with the
exception of one county just across the border in Nevada.
Rounding out the top 10 list for smog is
Houston-Baytown-Huntsville, Texas and Charlotte-Gastonia-Salisbury,
Many of those same places show up on the top 10 list for
year-round soot. That list includes: Bakersfield-Delano; Los
Angeles-Long Beach-Riverside; Phoenix-Mesa-Glendale, Ariz.;
Visalia-Porterville; Hanford-Corcoran; Fresno-Madera;
Pittsburgh-New Castle, Pa.; Birmingham-Hoover-Cullman, Ala.;
Cincinnati-Middletown-Wilmington, Ohio-Ky.-Ind.; and
Louisville-Jefferson County-Elizabethtown-Scottsburg, Ky.-Ind.
But there is some good news, said Janice Nolen, director of
national policy for the American Lung Association. The majority of
cities with polluted air have actually improved. Nolen credited the
Clean Air Act, which, since its passage more than 40 years ago, has
forced car and diesel truck manufacturers and coal-fired power
plants, among others, to reduce emissions.
"The 'State of the Air 2011' finds the Clean Air Act is working. All metro areas on the list of the 25 cities most polluted by ozone showed improvement over the previous report, and 15 of those cities experienced their best year yet," Nolen said. "All but two of the 25 cities most polluted with year-round particle pollution improved over last year's report."
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that
the Clean Air Act saved 160,000 lives in 2010 alone.
"We are trying to remind folks that the Clean Air Act has saved hundreds of thousands of lives," Nolen said. "Without the clean up, we would have a lot more pollution and a lot more disease and dying. We are very concerned about efforts to roll it back."
Although some attack the Clean Air Act as unnecessary, experts
disagree. Jerrett explained that the research linking pollution to
death and disease comes from animal experiments, human volunteers
who go into pollution chambers where physiologic response is
measured, changes in cell cultures when cells are exposed to
pollution "and quite a few epidemiological studies."
"The body of evidence is large enough that if it's not fully evidence of causality, it's certainly strongly suggestive that pollution affects health in many adverse ways," Jerrett added.
Why does California, with its history of tough regulation, have
such a pollution problem? It's a combination of factors, according
to Jerrett. The state has lots of sources of emissions, including
burgeoning car and truck traffic, major ports, oil refineries, wood
and agricultural burning, and residential heating and cooling.
In areas such as Los Angeles, prevailing wind patterns and
mountain ranges trap polluted air that's then baked in the
sunshine, leading to the formation of smog.
The "State of the Air 2011" report uses state and local data
reported to the EPA in 2007 to 2009. Measurements include ozone,
year-round particle pollution and short-term pollution spikes.
The State of the Air 2011 report is available
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