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Report Says Air in U.S. Still Too Dirty

Improvements seen, but still a long way to go

THURSDAY, April 29, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Americans are still inhaling far too much polluted air.

That bad air comes in the form of both ozone and particle pollution, according to the American Lung Association's (ALA) fifth annual State of the Air report, which was released Thursday.

While the association traditionally measures ozone, which results from the reaction of sunlight and certain components of fuel, this is the first year that particle pollution has been analyzed as well. Particle pollution consists of microscopic, soot-like particles from power plant emissions, diesel exhaust and more that can lodge themselves in the lungs and raise the risk of premature death for millions of people, especially those with heart or lung disease. Particle pollution can also cause sudden death by triggering heart attacks and asthma attacks.

The report comes on the heels of a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report stating that 474 counties in 31 states -- home to 159 million people -- do not meet new health standards for ground-level ozone.

According to the ALA report, smog levels have declined slightly, yet 136 million Americans (almost half) are still exposed to dangerous levels and, echoing the EPA report, at least 159 million Americans live in areas with unhealthy levels of either ozone or particle pollution.

"It's clear that if you look at the data from 1970 to now, we've cleaned up the air a lot thanks to the Clean Air Act. However, clean doesn't necessarily mean clean enough," said Janice Nolen, director of national policy at the American Lung Association.

And the Clean Air Act itself is in jeopardy, the report pointed out. "The Clean Air Act has been under attack for a while," Nolen said. "It's probably the most successful environmental law we've ever had. It has the tools in it we need to clean up the future and we're seeing efforts to undermine it instead."

"The good part is that we haven't gotten worse," added Dr. Michael Marcus, director of pediatric pulmonology, allergy and immunology at Maimonides Medical Center in New York City. "The trend into the 1970s and 1980s was progressively more air pollution problems with each passing year. This report shows the areas where there have been improvements, especially in ozone, but that there's a significant part of this country that have major air pollution problems which, if we get lax and if we don't really support the clean air bills that are presently there, are going to start going back in wrong direction."

The air quality report used measurements taken by state and local agencies and reported to the EPA from 2000 to 2002. Each county was assigned a grade (A through F) in three categories: daily particle pollution levels; year-round particle pollution levels; and daily ozone levels.

Los Angeles had the worst ranking in a multitude of categories: short- and long-term particle pollution as well as ozone pollution. San Bernardino County in California had the worse ozone ranking among counties.

Ames, Iowa, was the cleanest city in terms of ozone pollution, while Santa Fe, N.M., was the cleanest city in terms of year-round particle pollution. Elbert County, Colorado, was the cleanest county when it came to year-round particle pollution.

Other problem spots include New York City, Philadelphia, Harrisburg, Pa., Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., Newark, N.J., Bridgeport, Conn. and Baltimore in the Northeast; Atlanta, Birmingham, Ala., Knoxville, Tenn., Louisville, Ky., Charleston, S.C. and Raleigh-Durham and Winston-Salem, N.C. in the Southeast; Chicago, Cleveland, Cincinnati, St. Louis and Detroit in the Midwest; Dallas-Ft. Worth, Houston and Phoenix in the Southwest; Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Sacramento and Fresno, Calif., Eugene, Ore., Seattle, Provo, Utah, and Salt Lake City in the West.

Overall, the report stated more than 81 million Americans (28 percent) live in areas with unhealthy short-term levels of particle pollution. About one-quarter of Americans (66 million) live in areas with unhealthy year-round levels of particle pollution. Some 46 million Americans live in counties where levels in all three categories are unhealthy.

Improvements, particularly in ozone levels, probably come from measures such as controls on power plants. New measures to clean up emissions from SUVs and diesel vehicles should also help in the future.

Although strides have been made, Nolen added, "it is still a huge health problem. We have a long way to go."

More information

The American Lung Association has more on outdoor air quality, while the Environmental Protection Agency explains ozone and your health.

SOURCES: Janice Nolen, director, national policy, American Lung Association, Washington, D.C.; Michael Marcus, M.D., director, pediatric pulmonology, allergy and immunology, Maimonides Medical Center, New York City; American Lung Association State of the Air: 2004
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