Warming prevents air quality improvement. Millions more Americans breathing dirty air as planet warms, study finds

Warming prevents air quality improvement – report

E&E News | Sean Reilly

For a second year, the American Lung Association is warning that climate change is blighting a trend toward improved air quality. Warmer weather and changing rainfall patterns “create continued challenges to long-term progress in reducing harmful air pollution under the Clean Air Act,” the public health advocacy group said in its latest annual “State of the Air” survey, released this morning. Despite cleanup measures for sources like motor vehicles and power plants, “we’re seeing pollution coming up, and that to us points to climate change as being a major factor,” Paul Billings, the association’s senior vice president for public policy, said in an interview this morning. Ozone, the main ingredient in smog, is a lung irritant closely linked to the production and consumption of fossil fuels. Fine particulates, technically known as PM2.5 because they are no wider than 2.5 microns in diameter, are tied to a variety of heart and lung ailments. More than 141 million Americans, about 43%, were exposed to unhealthy levels of either ozone or fine particulates from 2015 through 2017, the three-year period covered by the report. That figure represents about a 5% increase over the comparable total noted in last year’s report, which spanned 2014 through 2016, and an approximately 13% jump over the figure cited two years ago.

Forty-three percent of Americans live in places where they’re breathing unsafe air, according to American Lung Association

High-rise buildings in downtown Los Angeles, California, on a hazy morning on 21 September 2018.
 High-rise buildings in downtown Los Angeles, California, on a hazy morning on 21 September 2018. Photograph: Frederic J Brown/AFP/Getty Images

An increasing number of Americans live in places with unhealthy levels of smog or particulate air pollution – both of which are being made worse by climate change, according to a new report.

Air quality in the US has been improving since the 1970s, but that progress may be backsliding and 43% of Americans are now living in places where they are breathing unsafe air, according to the American Lung Association report.

As temperatures rise, wildfires are getting worse and spewing smoke across the west. And more smog, or ozone, is forming on warmer days.

For the three hottest years on record, 2015 through 2017, about 141 million people lived in US counties that saw unhealthy levels of particle pollution, either in a single 24-hour period or over a year, or unhealthy levels of smog. That is 7 million more people than in the group’s last report.

“We’re seeing in this year’s report the impacts of climate change on air quality in really stunning terms,” said Paul Billings, a vice-president for the association.

Eight communities set records for days with spikes in particle pollution, surpassing the group’s data back to 2001, Billings said.

Western wildfires might be to blame for much of the uptick, and next year’s report counting 2018 is expected to be even worse, he said.

In California, Bakersfield and the Fresno area had among the worst air quality in the country, according to all three measurements. Los Angeles continued to rank worst for smog. Fairbanks, Alaska, ranked third for particle pollution, probably because so many people burn wood to heat their homes.

The report is the health advocacy group’s annual assessment of government data.

Both smog and particle pollution are linked with breathing problems, lung and heart complications and early deaths. Smog occurs when sunlight reacts with gases from cars and power plants. Particle pollution also comes from burning fossil fuels, as well as from burning wood in fireplaces or stoves, and from wildfires.

Air pollution has fallen for decades in the US, due to pollution laws like the 1970 Clean Air Act and the use of less coal and more natural gas.

One 2018 study found that deaths from air pollution in the US were cut in half between 1990 and 2010. But they still accounted for one out of every 35 deaths – more than from traffic accidents and shootings combined.

In comparison, more than 5.5 billion people worldwide, 75% of the population, live in places that do not meet the World Health Organization standard for limiting particle pollution, according to the University of Chicago.

The Trump administration has sought to roll back Obama-era environmentalprogress, including on air and climate pollution regulations, such as rules for power plants and cars.

Miles Keogh, the executive director for the National Association of State Air Agencies, said weakening air standards would mean “walking away from a winning strategy”.

“We’ve got the tools here,” Keogh said. “We’ve got to use them to shore it up, adapt them to a changing climate and not walk away from things that work.”