This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Clean Air Act, which has driven dramatic improvements in air quality over its history. Despite the progress the nation has made, the American Lung Association’s 21st annual “State of the Air” report, released today, shows that there are too many communities where air pollution still threatens health, and that climate change is making air quality worse in large parts of the country. Nearly half of Americans (45.8%) lived in counties that had unhealthy ozone or particle pollution in 2016-2018.
“African Americans face higher risk from life-threatening particle pollution, with many African Americans and other Americans of color living in counties with failing grades for particle and ozone pollution,” said American Lung Association Volunteer Medical Spokesperson Dr. David Tom Cooke. “These results go hand in hand with recent data that African Americans, with already at-risk lungs, represent a disproportionately higher rate of COVID-19 deaths in many pandemic hotspots. We must and can do better.”
The “State of the Air” report is an annual air quality “report card” that tracks Americans’ exposure nationwide to unhealthful levels of ozone and particle pollution. The report ranks the most polluted and cleanest U.S. cities for air quality. This year’s report also includes new scientific conclusions that particle pollution is particularly risky for people of color.
Studies have found that Hispanics, Asians, American Indians/Alaska Natives, and especially African Americans experienced higher risks of harm, including premature death. The most recent EPA review of the research on the health effects of particle pollution concluded that nonwhite populations, especially blacks, faced higher risk from particle pollution.
Scientists have speculated that there are three broad reasons why disparities may exist. First, groups may face greater exposure to pollution because of factors ranging from racism to class bias to housing market dynamics and land costs. For example, pollution sources tend to be located near disadvantaged
communities, increasing exposure to harmful pollutants. Second, low social position may make some groups more susceptible to health threats because of factors related to their disadvantage. Lack of
access to health care, grocery stores and good jobs; poorer job opportunities; dirtier workplaces or higher traffic exposure are among the factors that could handicap groups and increase the risk of harm.
Finally, existing health conditions, behaviors or traits may predispose some groups to greater risk. For example, the elderly, African Americans, Mexican Americans and people living near a central city have higher incidence of diabetes, and individuals with diabetes are at higher risk of harm from air pollution.
“Air pollution impacts us all. Unfortunately, some populations have longer exposures to greater toxins over time that result in dire health consequences,” said Dr. Panagis Galiatsatos. “In the pandemic we are in, seeing SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) ravage certain demographics, such as African Americans, may in part be due to the air pollution that engulfs their respective neighborhoods, weakening their lungs to this virus.”
The nation needs stronger limits on ozone and particle pollution to safeguard health. Every family has the right to breathe healthy air – and the right to know when air pollution levels are unhealthy.