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People at Risk

Looking at the nation as a whole, the "State of the Air 2017" shows that, even with ongoing improvement, too many people in the United States live where the air is unhealthy for them to breathe.

  • Nearly four in 10 people (38.9 percent) in the United States live in counties that have unhealthful levels of either ozone or particle pollution. More than 125 million Americans live in 204 counties where they breathe unhealthful levels of air pollution in the form of either ozone or short-term or year-round levels of particles.
  • This represents a major improvement: One-quarter fewer people now live where the air quality hit unhealthy levels in 2013-2015 than in the 2016 report. In last year's report, covering 2012-2014, more than 166 million Americans lived in counties with unhealthful levels of air pollution.
  • This improvement reflects continued progress in reducing harmful air pollution under the Clean Air Act. Progress would have been greater if climate change had not helped to create conditions that can worsen air quality.

More than one-third (36 percent) of the people in the United States live in areas with unhealthy levels of ozone pollution, but that is far fewer in 2013-2015 than in the previous report. Approximately 116.5 million people live in 161 counties that earned an F for ozone this year's report, a significant drop from the approximately 162.9 million who lived in counties earning an F in 2012-2014.

  • Nearly 19.9 million people (6.2 percent) suffered from unhealthy year-round levels of particle pollution in 2013-2015. These people lived in 18 counties where the annual average concentration of particle pollution was too high. Although still too high, fewer people face those dangerous year-round concentrations during this period than in last year's report. That report covered 2012-2014 when approximately 22.8 million people lived where monitors recorded unhealthy levels of year-round particle pollution.
  • More than 13 percent of people in the United States--more than 43 million--live in an area with too many days with unhealthful levels of particle pollution. Slightly fewer people lived where those episodes of unhealthy spikes in particle pollution in 2013-2015, despite many cities reaching their worst number of spikes since the report began. The total population exposed to unhealthy air dropped slightly to 43.03 million, down from 44.97 million in the 2016 report. Some counties with large populations had fewer high days, so they no longer received an F, while smaller population counties had more high pollution days. Those shifts resulted in slight changes to the population totals.
  • More than 18 million people (5.6 percent) live in 12 counties with unhealthful levels of all three: ozone and short-term and year-round particle pollution. This is nearly 1.9 million fewer people than in the 2016 report when approximately 6.3 percent were exposed. However, data on particle pollution remains missing in all or parts of three states.

More than 18 million people in the U.S. live in counties where the outdoor air failed all three tests.

With the risks from airborne pollution so great, the Lung Association seeks to inform people who may be in danger. Many people are at greater risk because of their age or because they have asthma or other chronic lung disease, cardiovascular disease or diabetes. The following list identifies the numbers of people in each at-risk group. Because of the missing data on particle pollution in Illinois, Tennessee and Maine, the numbers of people living in counties that fail all three tests may be actually higher.

  • Older and Younger – Nearly 16.7 million adults age 65 and over and more than 29.5 million children under 18 years old live in counties that received an F for at least one pollutant. More than 2.3 million seniors and more than 4.3 million children live in counties failing all three tests.
  • People with Asthma – Nearly 2.5 million children and nearly 8.3 million adults with asthma live in counties of the United States that received an F for at least one pollutant. Nearly 322,000 children and close to 1.1 million adults with asthma live in counties failing all three tests.
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) – More than 5.1 million people with COPD live in counties that received an F for at least one pollutant. More than 575,000 people with COPD live in counties failing all three tests.
  • Lung Cancer—More than 68,000 people with lung cancer live in counties that received an F for at least one pollutant. More than 8,000 people with lung cancer live in counties failing all three tests.
  • Cardiovascular Disease – More than 7.1 million people with cardiovascular diseases live in counties that received an F for at least one pollutant; more than 88,000 people live in counties failing all three tests.
  • Diabetes – Nearly 3.3 million people with diabetes live in counties that received an F for either short-term or year-round particle pollution; more than 1.3 million live in counties failing both tests. Having diabetes increases the risk of harm from particle pollution.
  • Poverty – More than 17.7 million people with incomes meeting the federal poverty definition live in counties that received an F for at least one pollutant. Nearly 3.2 million people in poverty live in counties failing all three tests. Evidence shows that people who have low incomes may face higher risk from air pollution.

Did You Know?

  1. More than 4 out of 10 people live where the air they breathe earned an F in State of the Air 2017.
  2. More than 125 million people live in counties that received an F for either ozone or particle pollution in State of the Air 2017.
  3. More than 18 million people live in counties that got an F for all three air pollution measures in State of the Air 2017.
  4. Breathing ozone irritates the lungs, resulting in something like a bad sunburn within the lungs.
  5. Breathing in particle pollution can increase the risk of lung cancer, according to the World Health Organization.
  6. Particle pollution can also cause early death and heart attacks, strokes and emergency room visits for people with asthma, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
  7. Particles are smaller than 1/30th the diameter of a human hair. When you inhale them, they are small enough to get past the body's natural defenses.
  8. Ozone and particle pollution are both linked to increased risk of lower birth weight in newborns.
  9. Do you live near, or work on or near a busy highway? Pollution from the traffic may put you at greater risk of harm.
  10. People who work or exercise outside face increased risk from the effects of air pollution.
  11. Millions of people are especially vulnerable to the effects of air pollution, including infants, older adults and people with lung diseases like asthma.
  12. People of color and those earning lower incomes are often disproportionately affected by air pollution that put them at higher risk for illnesses.
  13. Air pollution is a serious health threat. It can trigger asthma attacks, harm lung development in children, and can even be deadly.
  14. You can protect your family by checking the air quality forecasts in your community and avoiding exercising or working outdoors when the unhealthy air is expected.
  15. Big polluters and some members of Congress are trying to change the Clean Air Act and dismantle 47 years of progress. The Lung Association is fighting to keep the law strong to continue to protect public health.
  16. Cutting air pollution through the Clean Air Act will prevent at least 230,000 deaths and save $2 trillion annually by 2020.
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