About four in 10 people across the country live in cities that are breaking our national clean-air standards, according to the latest “State of the Air report” published by the American Lung Association. That means that 133.9 million people could be breathing in unacceptable levels of smog, pathogens, and toxins.
Familiar pollution capitals topped the rankings: Los Angeles led the nation in ozone pollution, and the next nine most ozone-polluted metropolitan areas were all in California, followed by the New York–New Jersey–Pennsylvania-Connecticut region. Both Los Angeles and New York actually worsened this year among the city rankings.
But far northward, Fairbanks, Alaska, has become an unlikely leading casualty of short-term particle pollution—the contaminants from sources like diesel engines and wildfires that are linked to respiratory damage and asthma, threatening about 35 million people nationwide. Last May, Fairbanks and two other cities in reputedly “clean” regions, Provo and Salt Lake City, Utah, were flagged by the EPA for high levels of smoke pollution and directed to take emergency mitigation measures, such as controlling the use of heating devices like wood-fired stoves.
Although total pollution levels are down across the country, the cities now disproportionately affected by soot and smog reaffirm the socioeconomic divides in the pollution epidemic. The worst-polluted cities are often extremely diverse sources of both low-wage industrial jobs and massive environmental-health epidemics in communities of color. Despite reductions in year-round particulate-pollution levels nationwide, the report notes that “the 11 most polluted cities each violate the Clean Air Act’s U.S. National Ambient Air Quality Standards designed to protect public health.” Among them: Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Weirton, West Virginia—all in Rust Belt states where Donald Trump swept the last election on a promise of effectively writing polluting industries a blank check to “bring back” jobs.
Other environmental hazards have broad impacts across class and racial lines, though poorer communities, predictably, tend to suffer more. The massive wildfires that scorched California’s landscape last summer revealed the growing threat of uncontrolled blazes amid a warming climate and unprecedented water scarcity, displacing farmworkers and middle-class homeowners alike, but job losses for landless laborers were far more punishing for the region’s migrant workforce.
Although the air ratings draw from 2016 data, the most recent available, the Trump administration is undoubtedly contributing to air and water pollution as EPA chief Scott Pruitt systematically deregulates air-quality controls, dismantles standards on toxics and pollutants, and cozies up with the fossil-fuel industries he defended for much of his career before joining the government.