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Travis Madsen,
Environment America

72 cities had more than 100 unhealthy air days in 2015

New report released to mark Public Health Week.
For Immediate Release

[Washington DC] – Air pollution remains a major threat to our health, according to a new report from Environment America Research & Policy Center, Our Health at Risk: Why Are Millions of Americans Still Breathing Unhealthy Air? In 2015, people living in 72 different metropolitan areas across America experienced at least 100 days with unhealthy levels of soot pollution, increasing the risk of premature death, asthma attacks and other adverse health impacts.

“Even one day with unhealthy air is too many,” said Travis Madsen, campaign director at Environment America. “When it comes to protecting people from the harm caused by air pollution, we should be moving forward, not backwards.”

“We need to shift away from fuels that cause air pollution – like coal and gas,” said Camille A. Clare MD MPH, NMA Region 1 Chair and President of the Manhattan Central Medical Society, a local affiliate of the National Medical Association. “We can clean our air by moving to 100 percent clean, renewable energy across our whole society, which will benefit our patients and our communities.”

The report comes during National Public Health Week, a celebration of efforts to tackle the underlying causes of disease – like air pollution – and ensure that all people have a chance to live long and healthy lives.

Although our skies are less polluted than they were 30 years ago, dirty air is still a major health problem. Despite that fact, President Trump is taking an axe to important programs that could help clean up our air. In just the last month, the Trump Administration has:

  • Instructed the EPA to rewrite the Clean Power Plan, the largest step the United States has ever taken to cut dangerous global warming pollution;

  • Proposed to cut the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency by 31 percent, a “get out of jail free card” for polluters;

  • Instructed the Environmental Protection Agency to roll back federal clean cars standards that were supposed to prevent 6 billion metric tons of global warming pollution; and

  • Told the Department of Interior to rewrite air pollution regulations for oil and gas drilling.

These actions will have significant health impacts. Blocking the Clean Power Plan alone will slow progress in cleaning our air – leading to 3,600 additional premature deaths, 90,000 more asthma attacks in children, and 300,000 more missed work and school days annually by 2030.

“Clean air is fundamental to public health,” said Richard N. Gottfried, New York Assembly Member and Health Committee Chair. “Washington’s cuts to the EPA and rolling back clean air standards will increase rates of asthma, lung cancer, and other environmentally-driven health conditions.”

Our Health at Risk reviews EPA records of air pollution levels across the country, focusing on smog and soot – dangerous pollutants that come from burning dirty fuels like coal, oil and natural gas. Key findings include:

  • In 2015, people living in 72 different metropolitan areas across America experienced at least 100 days with unhealthy levels of soot pollution. Soot levels were unhealthy for more than half of the year in cities including San Bernardino, CA; Pittsburgh, PA; Fresno, CA; Philadelphia, PA; St. Louis, MO; Los Angeles, CA; Harrisburg, PA; and Steubenville, OH.

  • Residents of 34 metropolitan areas experienced more than 100 days in 2015 with elevated smog pollution. More than half of those communities were in California, joined by Denver, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Houston, Dallas, Salt Lake City, and Albuquerque.

  • 49 states had at least one city with unhealthy air on at least one day during 2015.

  • (The report contains a full breakdown of air pollution monitoring data by state, and ranks the top cities.)

Many Americans are exposed to air pollution even more severe than described here because they live in local pollution “hotspots,” such as near freeways, airports and industrial facilities – facing greater health impacts. For example, people who live near highly traveled roads are at increased risk of developing lung cancer, and at greater risk of death from stroke, lung disease and heart disease.

“There's no safe level of exposure to smog and particulate pollution,” said Elizabeth Ridlington, Policy Analyst with Frontier Group and co-author of the report. "Elevated levels of air pollution – even levels the federal government says are safe for most people – hurt our health.”

“And it’s not just soot and smog,” said Madsen. “Global warming pollution is extending the smog season across more of the year, and driving up smog levels on hot days. Along with drought, warming is also making wildfires more frequent and intense – causing additional pollution that can travel hundreds of miles.”

“If we rollback clean air protections now, it will Make America Dirty Again,” said Detroit resident Angela Youngblood, member of Moms Clean Air Force. “We must call out these rollbacks for what they are about: polluters’ profit. We have an obligation to safeguard our children's health and protect their future. Our kids are counting on it—here in Motor City and in hometowns everywhere across this country.”

“In the face of reckless and dangerous actions from the Trump Administration, the United States Senate must stand up for our health,” said Madsen. “We urge our senators to oppose all attempts to weaken our fundamental environmental safeguards.”

Governors can help clean up the air as well. For example, the governors of nine northeast states from Maryland to Maine could act in the coming months to strengthen the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a highly successful program that limits pollution from power plants and fuels investment in clean energy.

“The best way to avoid health threats from poor air quality is to prevent them by strengthening policies like the Clean Air Act and programs like the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative,” said Karen A. D’Andrea, Executive Director, Physicians for Social Responsibility Maine Chapter.

“The more we cut pollution,” concluded Madsen, “the sooner dirty air days can become a thing of the past.”

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Environment America Research & Policy Center is a 501(c)(3) organization. We are dedicated to protecting our air, water and open spaces. We investigate problems, craft solutions, educate the public and decision-makers, and help the public make their voices heard in local, state and national debates over the quality of our environment and our lives. For more information, visit www.environmentamericacenter.org.