US: 40% of people exposed to unhealthy levels of air pollution

According to a recent report by the American Lung Association, nearly 40% of people in the US are exposed to unhealthy levels of air pollution, with 131 million people affected by harmful ozone and particulate matter. This represents an increase of 11.7 million people from last year, influenced by stricter federal standards for measuring particle pollution. The report highlights the health risks associated with air pollution, including lung and heart diseases, asthma, and reproductive issues.

Paul Billings, a senior advocate at the ALA, emphasized that climate change is a tangible reality adversely affecting millions annually. Despite a 78% reduction in six major air pollutants since the 1970 Clean Air Act, recent pollution from wildfires has negated some of these gains. The average exposure to dangerous particle pollution levels in the 25 most polluted cities has risen, with significant increases in very unhealthy air quality days due to wildfires.

California remains the state with the most polluted cities, with Bakersfield and Los Angeles experiencing the highest levels of particle pollution and smog, respectively. The report also notes a racial disparity in air quality exposure, linking poorer air quality in communities of color to historical zoning practices.

On a positive note, cities like Bangor, Honolulu, and Wilmington boast the cleanest air in the nation. The Biden administration has introduced new initiatives to cut emissions from diesel vehicles and is being urged to update ozone standards. Dr. Afif El-Hasan from the American Lung Association stresses the importance of collective efforts to ensure the air quality is safe, as it is beyond individual control.

The American Lung Association’s findings underscore a critical environmental justice issue, as populations most impacted by pollution often have the least resources to mitigate its effects. The disproportionate exposure to pollutants in communities of color due to past and present zoning laws calls for policy interventions that address both environmental and racial inequalities.

Efforts to combat air pollution must include a comprehensive approach that involves updating and enforcing stricter air quality standards, increasing monitoring in vulnerable communities, and implementing more robust regulations on industrial emissions and transportation. Transitioning to renewable energy sources and enhancing public transportation could also significantly reduce air pollution levels.

Public health experts, like Billings and El-Hasan, argue for more aggressive measures to be taken at both the local and national levels. This could include greater investment in pollution control technologies and infrastructure improvements designed to reduce exposure in high-risk areas.

The urgency of these measures is compounded by the increasing frequency and intensity of wildfires and extreme weather events, which are exacerbated by climate change and pose a growing threat to air quality. As such, addressing climate change itself becomes integral to any long-term strategy aimed at improving air quality.

Engagement and education at the community level are also vital. Communities need to be informed about the risks of air pollution and empowered with tools to advocate for cleaner air. Additionally, providing access to healthcare and support for those suffering from pollution-related health issues is crucial for these communities.

Ultimately, the challenge of air pollution is not just an environmental issue but a significant public health and social justice issue that requires coordinated action from governments, industry leaders, and communities to ensure a healthier future for all residents, regardless of their zip code.

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