Over 4 of 10 Americans breathe polluted air, report says. And people of color 61% more likely to be affected.

Story Highlights

  • People of color were 61% more likely to live in a county with unhealthy air than white people.
  • Primarily because of its geography and weather, California once again had the nation's most polluted cities.
  • The report deals with the two main types of air pollution that plague the U.S.: smog and soot.

The air we breathe continues to be unhealthy for many Americans, according to a new report released Wednesday by the American Lung Association.

In fact, more than 4 out of 10 Americans (135 million people) live where the air is polluted, the report states. In addition, the report found that people of color were 61% more likely to live in a county with unhealthy air than white people.

The association’s 22nd annual “State of the Air” report also said climate change continues to make air pollution worse.

“This report shines a spotlight on the urgent need to curb climate change, clean up air pollution and advance environmental justice,” said American Lung Association president and CEO Harold Wimmer in a statement. 

“The nation has a real opportunity to address all three at once – and to do that, we must center on health and health equity as we move away from combustion and fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy,” he said.

The 2021 report covers data from the years 2017-19, so any pollution decreases in the past year because of the nationwide COVID-19 lockdown were not included. (Those three years had the most recent quality-assured data from the Environmental Protection Agency.) 

A file photo taken on September 20, 2006, shows the pollution over Downtown Los Angeles. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

The three years of 2017, 2018 and 2019 were also among the six hottest in recorded global history. The report said that climate change continues to make air pollution worse; many Western communities again experienced record-breaking spikes in pollution largely because of smoke from wildfires. 

The report deals with the two main types of air pollution that plague the U.S.: smog (also known as ground-level ozone) and soot (technically known as “particulate matter”).

Smog forms on warm, sunny days and is made worse by chemicals that exit vehicle tailpipes and power plant and industrial smokestacks. Warmer temperatures make ozone more likely to form.

Soot pollution is deadlier and more of a health hazard than smog, causing more premature deaths and lung cancer, the lung association said. 

California once again had the nation’s most polluted cities, primarily because of its geography and weather. Los Angeles, Bakersfield and Visalia topped the list for smog; Bakersfield, Fresno and Visalia led the way for soot pollution. 

The nation’s cleanest cities, according to the report, were Burlington, Vermont; Charlottesville, Virginia; Elmira-Corning, New York; Honolulu; and Wilmington, North Carolina. To make the list of cleanest cities, “a city must experience no high ozone or high particle pollution days and rank among the 25 cities with the lowest year-round particle pollution levels,” the report said.

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