Air Quality: Good News, for a Change

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It’s about that time of year when lists of cities with the worst air quality or the highest incidences of asthma come out. As a result of these annual lists, we are reminded about the pollution that spews from our cars, the nastiness that emanates from smokestacks — and how our lungs bear the brunt of this foul-smelling reality.

 Normally, we expect the worst, but this year there’s some good news to be had. Health news is so often negative that it’s a delight to be able to report on positive findings. In this spirit, here’s a piece of news from the American Lung Association in a report they issued late last month. It turns out that we can all breathe easier because over the past decade, the number of days that posted unhealthy air quality has steadily diminished.

 Researchers discovered that significant improvement has been made in air quality over most parts of the country (particularly the east) — and they believe that reduced emissions from power plants could be responsible for the positive trend. So how did they arrive at this conclusion?

 Scientists looked at the time span of 2002 to 2004 and measured the number of days deemed to have air with unhealthy levels of pollutants or smog. They took the measurement from ozone monitors in 735 counties around the U.S. As a result, they found that in the recent three-year span there was a grand total of 8,500 days with air that was unhealthy to breathe. (That number is the sum of days from all counties.)

 Then they checked out a three-year period from 1996 to 1998 and found that ozone monitors in fewer counties (678) reported poorer air quality days — 10,200. So, taken at face value, the new numbers are a bit of a reassurance for those of us who are concerned about the air that we breathe.

 However, there always tends to be a “but” in medical research — and here it is. More than 150 million people in the U.S. (more than half of the population) live in counties that have unhealthy levels of soot or smog. And there are a lot of people in our society who suffer from the poor air quality: older adults, children and teenagers, and anyone with heart disease, diabetes, and lung conditions such as emphysema are affected by poor air quality. Plus, the researchers found about 15% of the population lives in 34 counties that have poor levels of both soot and smog.

 So where might you stand in the scheme of things? Well, if you live near a seaport, then you’re already at a disadvantage — the researchers found that tug boats, diesel trains, ferries, and other vessels are polluters in major cities with working ports. Cities ranking as the worst in the nation for air pollution include Los Angeles, California; New York, New York; Newark, New Jersey; Bridgeport, Connecticut; Washington D.C.; Baltimore, Maryland; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Cleveland, Ohio; and St. Louis, Missouri.