The 10th annual American Lung Association State of the Air report released April 29 finds that six out of ten Americans–186.1 million people — live in areas where air pollution levels endanger lives.

State of the Air 2009 acknowledges substantial progress against air pollution in many areas of the country, but finds nearly every major city still burdened by air pollution. Despite America’s growing “green” movement, the air in many cities became dirtier. The State of the Air report includes a national air quality “report card” that assigns A-F grades to communities across the country. The report also ranks cities and counties most affected by the three most widespread types of pollution (ozone—or smog, annual particle pollution, and 24-hour particle pollution levels) and details trends for 900 counties over the past decade.

“This should be a wake-up call.  We know that air pollution is a major threat to human health,” said Stephen J. Nolan, American Lung Association National Board Chair. “When 60 percent of Americans are left breathing air dirty enough to send people to the emergency room, to shape how kids’ lungs develop, and to kill, air pollution remains a serious problem.”

The report finds that air pollution hovers at unhealthy levels in almost every major city, threatening people’s ability to breathe and placing lives at risk. Some of the biggest sources of air pollution, including dirty power plants, dirty diesel engines and ocean-going vessels, also worsen global warming.

“The more we learn, the more urgent it becomes for us to take decisive action to make our air healthier,” added Nolan.

Many cities, like Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta, Charlotte, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore have made considerable improvements in their air quality over the past decade. People living in some of these cities however, are breathing even dirtier air than what was reported in the Lung Association’s 2008 report. Only one city—Fargo, N.D.—ranked among the cleanest in all three air pollution categories covered in State of the Air.

Ozone

Sixteen cities making this year’s 25 most ozone-polluted list experienced worsened ozone (smog) problems than last year’s report found. Fifty-eight percent of people in the United States live in counties with recorded unhealthy levels of ozone air pollution, measured against the tighter standard in effect since March 2008. The new standard showed that unhealthy ozone levels are more widespread and more severe than previously recognized.

The report’s review of the past 10 years identified consistent improvements in ozone in some cities, most notably Los Angeles, which has long been recognized for its serious ozone problem. By contrast, two cities, Dallas-Ft. Worth and Las Vegas, have higher ozone levels than 10 years ago. The report reviewed all previous data against the new EPA standard to appropriately trace the trends.

Ozone is the most widespread form of air pollution. When inhaled, ozone irritates the lungs, resulting in something like a bad sunburn. The health effects of breathing ozone pollution can be immediate. Ozone can cause wheezing, coughing and asthma attacks. Breathing ozone pollution can even shorten lives.

“More than 175 million Americans live in areas with unhealthy smog levels—that’s 80 million more than we identified in last year’s report,” explained Charles D. Connor,  American Lung Association President and CEO. “We at the American Lung Association believe that the new ozone standard is not yet strong enough to protect human health—an opinion nearly all scientific experts share.”

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