|Air monitoring equipment in Minneapolis. Photo: Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.|
TipSheet: State of the Air Report Spotlights Persistent Pollution Problems
If you are stalled in freeway traffic on a hot summer day, it might be hard to believe that air pollution is no longer a problem in the United States. Perhaps that’s because it still is.
The American Lung Association’s 2019 “State of the Air” report, just out, can help environmental journalists pin down an important and sometimes, er, burning problem that affects people’s health and lives.
The association’s report is handy, user-friendly, fairly up to date and reasonably accurate. But more importantly, it is searchable by place. And it offers the context to help you understand why a particular kind of pollution matters, how bad it is and where it may be coming from.
The landing page for the report is here. Drill down for more.
Air pollution has been a problem for a long time, and, yes, the United States has made a lot of progress in reducing it in the last five decades. But the problem is not solved. And it is still news, if we judge by controversy alone.
As coal-fired electricity, gas-guzzling autos and surging industrial growth transformed the United States in the 20th century, smog darkened cities and haze dimmed parkland vistas. People coughed and their eyes burned. In just one example, air pollution in Donora, Pa., killed nearly 40 people and sickened many more back in 1948.
The landmark Clean Air Act of 1970 wasn’t even the first federal air pollution legislation, but it was the one that created a strong regulatory role for the federal government, as an antidote to state pollution regulators, which were often too weak to stand up to well-funded industry lobbies.
During the ensuing decades, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the chief federal air pollution regulator, tightened standards and led great progress in pollution control, with the help (willing or unwilling) of states and industry. The Clean Air Act was further tightened, and scientists made huge progress in measuring and understanding how air pollution works.
Why it matters
Even today, air pollution is so harmful to human health that it kills people, even in the United States (and it’s far worse in India and China). There are different kinds of air pollution, and they have many different health effects. Pollution worsens a number of other common, underlying diseases, and can take years to do its full damage to health.
Smog is worse in the summer. Atmospheric chemists explain that sunlight and summer heat “cook” certain pollutants to produce ozone, the main pollutant in smog. Climate change, by worsening summer heat and humidity, will worsen smog, undoing some of the progress we have made in controlling it.
Population growth and economic development may worsen air pollution worldwide unless robust countermeasures are taken. Air pollution easily crosses state and national boundaries, and can even move from continent to continent.
According to the World Health Organization, “One third of deaths from stroke, lung cancer and heart disease are due to air pollution.” Even though a normally healthy adult may survive some pollution, other populations are more vulnerable: small children, the elderly, those with lung disease, etc.
Air pollution is very often a local or regional story.
Sometimes geography creates a regional “basin” or airshed that collects pollution when air does not circulate. Sometimes regional traffic or industry is a major source of pollution. Sometimes, institutionally, a collection of local, regional and state governments collaborate on control measures.
Here are some ways to tell the air pollution story in your local-regional context.
- Is your air pollution region part of a “nonattainment area”? Check with EPA. What will it need to do to attain compliance with health standards? What are the obstacles?
- What is the air-pollution-control planning agency in your area? Often this is a regional or metropolitan authority, like a council of governments. What are the intergovernmental politics?
- What hospitals and medical facilities treat air-pollution-related illnesses like acute asthma? Will they give you statistics — broken down enough to correlate with air pollution?
- What air pollution types and sources might be especially important in your region? Are there problems with smoke from wildfire? Dust from windstorms and erosion? Toxic emissions from concentrated industries like petrochemicals? Particulates (soot)? Haze at parks?
- As the summer develops, watch air quality indicators to see what’s going on in your area. The EPA-led multi-agency site AirNow can give you a nearly real-time readout, as may your local meteorologists.
- The National Association of Clean Air Agencies and the Association of Air Pollution Control Agencies represent different political factions among state and regional air agencies.
- Electric utility groups, such as the Edison Electric Institute or the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, often defend coal-burning.
- The Natural Resources Defense Council and Earthjustice are environmental advocacy organizations that litigate a lot on clean air issues.
- State air pollution control agencies have delegated enforcement authority under the Clean Air Act.
- The World Health Organization can talk about pollution health effects above the fray of U.S. politics.
- The Union of Concerned Scientists works to uphold the integrity of science, as the science on air pollution endures many attacks.
- Also see SEJournal’s TipSheet on air quality and summertime smog.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 4, No. 19. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.