People at Risk | American Lung Association

People at Risk

The "State of the Air 2018" shows that too many people in the United States live where the air is unhealthy for them to breathe.

  • More than four in 10 people (41.4 percent) in the United States live in counties that have unhealthful levels of either ozone or particle pollution. More than 133.9 million Americans live in 215 counties where they breathe unhealthful levels of air pollution in the form of either ozone or short-term or year-round levels of particles.
  • More people suffered unhealthy air in 2014-2016 than in the years covered by the 2017 report (2013-2015), when the total was only 125 million. However, these are still far below the 166 million in the years covered in the 2016 report (2012-2014).
  • This change reflects continued challenges in dealing with the impacts of the changing climate, as well as long-term 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 added days of high ozone.
  • Nearly four in 10 (39.9 percent) of the people in the United States live in areas with unhealthy levels of ozone pollution, about 12.4 million more people in 2014-2016 than in the previous report. Approximately 128.9 million people live in 185 counties that earned an F for ozone this year’s report, significantly more than the approximately 116.5 million who lived in counties earning an F in 2013-2015.
  • More than 9.8 million people (3 percent) suffered from unhealthy year-round levels of particle pollution in 2014-2016. These people lived in 16 counties where the annual average concentration of particle pollution was too high. Although still too many, fewer people faced those dangerous year-round concentrations during this period than in last year’s report. That report covered 2013-2015 when approximately 18 million people lived where monitors recorded unhealthy levels of year-round particle pollution. In this year’s report, the lower tally of populations exposed is likely due to missing population data from two counties with incomplete data—Los Angeles County and San Bernardino County in California. Adding in those two would increase the total by 12 million.
  • More than one in 10 people in the United States—more than 35.1 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 occurred in 2014-2016 than in the previous report. The total population exposed to too many episodes of high particle pollution dropped slightly to 35.1 million, fewer than the 43.0 million in 2013-2015 and well below the 45.0 million in the 2016 report.
  • Nearly 7.7 million people (2.4 percent) live in 10 counties with unhealthful levels of all three: ozone and short-term and year-round particle pollution in 2014-2016. This is far fewer than the 18 million people who lived in such counties in the years covered in the 2017 report. However, two California counties that would likely have been in this group lacked complete data; had data been available for them, the total population with unhealthy air for all three would have risen to more than 19 million. In addition, data remain missing for particle pollution for all of Illinois.

Nearly 7.7 million people in the U.S. live in counties where the outdoor air failed all three tests—but the real number is likely much higher.

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 and two large counties in California, the numbers of people living in counties that fail all three tests may be much higher.

  • Older and Younger – Nearly 18.3 million adults age 65 and over and more than 31.3 million children under 18 years old live in counties that received an F for at least one pollutant. More than 1 million seniors and more than 2 million children live in counties failing all three tests.
  • People with Asthma – More than 2.5 million children and more than 9 million adults with asthma live in counties of the United States that received an F for at least one pollutant. More than 157,000 children and nearly 471,000 adults with asthma live in counties failing all three tests.
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) – Nearly 6.0 million people with COPD live in counties that received an F for at least one pollutant. Nearly 277,000 people with COPD live in counties failing all three tests.
  • Lung Cancer—Nearly 72,900 people with lung cancer live in counties that received an F for at least one pollutant. More than 3,500 people with lung cancer live in counties failing all three tests.
  • Cardiovascular Disease – Nearly 8 million people with cardiovascular diseases live in counties that received an F for at least one pollutant; more than 394,000 people live in counties failing all three tests.
  • Diabetes – More than 2.1 million people with diabetes live in counties that received an F for either short-term or year-round particle pollution; nearly 627,000 live in counties failing both tests. Having diabetes increases the risk of harm from particle pollution.
  • Poverty – Nearly 18.3 million people with incomes meeting the federal poverty definition live in counties that received an F for at least one pollutant. More than 1.3 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 5 out of 10 people live where the air they breathe earned an F in State of the Air 2016.
  2. Nearly 166 million people live in counties that received an F for either ozone or particle pollution in State of the Air 2016.
  3. Nearly 20 million people live in counties that got an F for all three air pollution measures in State of the Air 2016.
  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 which 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 45 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.
Get more facts »
Help us fight for air
Download Report
Ask An Expert

Questions about your lung health? Need help finding healthcare? Call 1-800-LUNGUSA.

Get help
We need your generous support

Make a difference by delivering research, education and advocacy to those impacted by lung disease.

What is LUNG FORCE?

LUNG FORCE unites women and their loved ones across the country to stand together in the fight against lung cancer.

Get involved
Join the fight for healthy lungs and healthy air.
Donate Now.