Since its inception in 2000, the American Lung Association "State of the Air" report has used a methodology that starts with reliable quality-assured data from EPA and applies an unbiased grading system to provide credible, easy-to-understand information to the public about the air they breathe.

Statistical Methodology: The Air Quality Data

Ozone and short-term particle pollution. The data on air quality throughout the United States were obtained from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Quality System (AQS), formerly called Aerometric Information Retrieval System (AIRS) database. The American Lung Association contracted with Dr. Allen S. Lefohn, A.S.L. & Associates, Helena, Montana, to characterize the hourly averaged ozone concentration information and the 24-hour averaged PM2.5 concentration information for the three-year period for 2017-2019 for each monitoring site.

Year-round particle pollution. Design values for the annual PM2.5 concentrations by county for the period 2017-2019 were retrieved December 1, 2020 from data posted on May 26, 2020, at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s website at https://www.epa.gov/air-trends/air-quality-design-values.

The 2017, 2018, and 2019 AQS hourly ozone data were used to calculate the daily 8-hour maximum concentration for each ozone-monitoring site. The hourly averaged ozone data were downloaded on June 30, 2020, following the close of the authorized period for quality review and assurance certification of data. Only the hourly average ozone concentrations derived from FRM and FEM monitors were used in the analysis. The data were considered for a three-year period for the same reason that the EPA uses three years of data to determine compliance with the ozone standard: to prevent a situation in any single year, where anomalies of weather or other factors create air pollution levels, which inaccurately reflect the normal conditions. The highest 8-hour daily maximum concentration in each county for 2017, 2018, and 2019, based on the EPA-defined ozone season, was identified.

The current national ambient air quality standard for ozone is 70 parts per billion (ppb) measured over eight hours. The EPA’s Air Quality Index reflects the 70 ppb standard. A.S.L. & Associates prepared a table by county that summarized, for each of the three years, the number of days the ozone level was within the ranges identified by the EPA based on the EPA Air Quality Index:

0 – 54 ppbGood (Green)
55 – 70 ppbModerate (Yellow)
71 – 85 ppbUnhealthy for Sensitive Groups (Orange)
86 – 105 ppbUnhealthy (Red)
106 – 200 ppbVery Unhealthy (Purple)
>200 ppbHazardous (Maroon)

The goal of this report was to identify the number of days that 8-hour daily maximum concentrations in each county occurred within the defined ranges. This approach provided an indication of the level of pollution for all monitored days, not just those days that fell under the requirements for attaining the national ambient air quality standards. Therefore, no data capture criteria were applied to eliminate monitoring sites or to require a number of valid days for the ozone season.

The daily maximum 8-hour average concentration for a given day is derived from the highest of the 17 consecutive 8-hour averages beginning with the 8-hour period from 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. and ending with the 8-hour period from 11:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. the following day. This follows the process EPA uses for the current ozone standard adopted in 2015 but differs from the form used under the previous 0.075 ppm 8-hour average ozone standard that was established in 2008. All valid days of data within the ozone season were used in the analysis. However, for computing an 8-hour average, at least 75 percent of the hourly concentrations (i.e., 6-8 hours) had to be available for the 8-hour period. In addition, an 8-hour daily maximum average was identified if valid 8-hour averages were available for at least 75 percent of possible hours in the day (i.e., at least 13 of the possible 17 8-hour averages). Because the EPA includes days with inadequate data (i.e., not 75 percent complete) if the standard value is exceeded, our data capture methodology also included the site’s 8-hour value if at least one valid 8-hour period were available, and it was 71 ppb or higher.

As instructed by the Lung Association, A.S.L. & Associates included the exceptional (e.g., wildfires) and natural events (e.g., stratospheric intrusions) that were identified in the database and identified for the Lung Association the dates and monitoring sites that experienced such events. Some data have been flagged by the state or local air pollution control agency to indicate that they had raised issues with EPA about those data. For each day across all sites within a specific county, the highest daily maximum 8-hour average ozone concentration was recorded and then the results were summarized by county for the number of days the ozone levels were within the ranges identified above.

Following receipt of the above information, the American Lung Association identified the number of days each county, with at least one ozone monitor, experienced air quality designated as orange (Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups), red (Unhealthy), or purple (Very Unhealthy). When insufficient data were available in any year, an “incomplete” was identified for the 3-year period. Insufficient data exist for various reasons. For example, when a specific monitor was used for a special study and the monitor was then discontinued in other years, an “incomplete” is assigned.

A.S.L. & Associates identified the maximum daily 24-hour AQS PM2.5 concentration for each county in 2017, 2018, and 2019 with monitoring information. The 24-hour PM2.5 data were downloaded on August 7, 2020, following the close of the authorized period for quality review and assurance certification of data. In addition, on August 7, 2020, hourly averaged PM2.5 concentration data were characterized into 24-hour average PM2.5 values by the EPA and provided to A.S.L. & Associates. Using these results, A.S.L. & Associates prepared a table by county that summarized, for each of the three years, the number of days the maximum of the daily PM2.5 concentration was within the ranges identified by the EPA based on the EPA Air Quality Index, as adopted by the EPA on December 14, 2012:

0 – 0.0 µg/m3 to 12.0 µg/m3Good (Green)
12.1 µg/m3 to 35.4 µg/m3Moderate (Yellow)
35.5 µg/m3 to 55.4 µg/m3Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups (Orange)
55.5 µg/m3 to 150.4 µg/m3Unhealthy (Red)
150.5 µg/m3 to 250.4 µg/m3Very Unhealthy (Purple)
greater than or equal to 250.5 µg/m3Hazardous (Maroon)

All previous data collected for 24-hour average PM2.5 were characterized using the AQI thresholds listed above.

The goal of this report was to identify the number of days that the maximum in each county of the daily PM2.5 concentration occurred within the defined ranges. This approach provided an indication of the level of pollution for all monitored days, not just those days that fell under the requirements for attaining the national ambient air quality standards. Therefore, no data capture criteria were used to eliminate monitoring sites. Both 24-hour averaged PM data, as well as hourly averaged PM data averaged over 24 hours were used. Included in the analysis are data collected using only FRM and FEM methods, which reported hourly and 24-hour averaged data. As instructed by the Lung Association, A.S.L. & Associates included the exceptional and natural events that were identified in the database and identified for the Lung Association the dates and monitoring sites that experienced such events. Some data have been flagged by the state or local air pollution control agency to indicate that they had raised issues with EPA about those data. For each day across all sites within a specific county, the highest daily maximum 24-h PM2.5 concentration was recorded and then the results were summarized by county for the number of days the concentration levels were within the ranges identified above.

Following receipt of the above information, the American Lung Association identified the number of days each county, with at least one PM2.5 monitor, experienced air quality designated as orange (Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups), red (Unhealthy), purple (Very Unhealthy) or maroon (Hazardous).

Description of County Grading System

The grades for ozone and short-term particle pollution (24-hour PM2.5) were based on a weighted average for each county. To determine the weighted average, the Lung Association followed these steps:

  1. First, assigned weighting factors to each category of the Air Quality Index. The number of orange days experienced by each county received a factor of 1; red days, a factor of 1.5; purple days, a factor of 2; and maroon days, a factor of 2.5. This allowed days where the air pollution levels were higher to receive greater weight.
  2. Next, multiplied the total number of days within each category by their assigned factor, and then summed all the categories to calculate a total.
  3. Finally, divided the total by three to determine the weighted average, since the monitoring data were collected over a three-year period.

The weighted average determined each county’s grades for ozone and 24-hour PM2.5.

  • All counties with a weighted average of zero (corresponding to no exceedances of the standard over the three-year period) were given a grade of “A.”
  • For ozone, an “F” grade was set to generally correlate with the number of unhealthy air days that would place a county in nonattainment for the ozone standard. 
  • For short-term particle pollution, fewer unhealthy air days are required for an F than for nonattainment under the PM2.5 standard. The national air quality standard is set to allow two percent of the days during the three years to exceed 35 µg/m(called a “98th percentile” form) before violating the standard. That would be roughly 21 unhealthy days in three years. The grading used in this report would allow only about one percent of the days to be over 35 µg/m3 (called a “99th percentile” form) of the PM2.5. The American Lung Association supports using the tighter limits in a 99th percentile form as a more appropriate standard that is intended to protect the public from short-term episodes or spikes in pollution.
Grading System
GradeWeighted AverageApprox. Number of Allowable Orange / Red / Purple / Maroon days
A0.0None
B0.3 to 0.91 to 2 orange days with no red
C1.0 to 2.03 to 6 days over the standard: 3 to 5 orange with no more than 1 red OR 6 orange with no red
D2.1 to 3.27 to 9 days over the standard: 7 total (including up to 2 red) to 9 orange with no red
F3.3 or higher9 days or more over the standard: 10 orange days or 9 total including at least 1 or more red, purple or maroon

Weighted averages allow comparisons to be drawn based on severity of air pollution. For example, if one county had nine orange days and no red days, it would earn a weighted average of 3.0 and a D grade. However, another county that had only eight orange days but also two red days, which signify days with more serious air pollution, would receive an F. That second county would have a weighted average of 3.7.

Note that this system differs significantly from the methodology the EPA uses to determine violations of both the ozone and the 24-hour PM2.5 standards. The EPA determines whether a county violates the standard based on the fourth maximum daily 8-hour ozone reading each year averaged over three years. Multiple days of unhealthy air beyond the highest four in each year are not considered. By contrast, the system used in this report recognizes when a community’s air quality repeatedly results in unhealthy air throughout the three years. Consequently, some counties will receive grades of “F” in this report, showing repeated instances of unhealthy air, while still meeting the EPA’s 2015 ozone standard. The American Lung Association’s position is that the evidence shows that the 2015 ozone standard, although stronger than the 2008 standard, still fails to adequately protect public health.

The Lung Association calculates the county population at risk from these pollutants based on the population from the entire county where the monitor is located. The Lung Association then calculates the metropolitan population at risk based upon the largest metropolitan area that contains that county. Not only do people from that county or metropolitan area circulate within the county and the metropolitan area, the air pollution circulates to that monitor through the county and metropolitan area. 

Counties were ranked by weighted average. Metropolitan areas were ranked by the highest weighted average among the counties within a given Metropolitan Statistical Area as of 2020 as defined by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

Since no comparable Air Quality Index exists for year-round particle pollution (annual PM2.5), the grading was based on the 2012 National Ambient Air Quality Standard for annual PM2.5 of 12 µg/m3. Counties that EPA listed as being at or below 12 µg/m3 were given grades of “Pass.” Counties EPA listed as being at or above 12.1 µg/m3were given grades of “Fail.” Where insufficient data existed for EPA to determine a design value, those counties received a grade of “Incomplete.”

Design value is the calculated concentration of a pollutant based on the form of the national ambient air quality standard and is used by EPA to determine whether the air quality in a county meets the standard. Counties were ranked by design value. Metropolitan areas were ranked by the highest design value among the counties within a given Metropolitan Statistical Area as of 2020 as defined by the OMB.

The Lung Association received critical assistance from members of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies and the Association of Air Pollution Control Agencies. With their assistance, all state and local agencies were provided the opportunity to review and comment on the data in draft tabular form. The Lung Association reviewed all discrepancies with the agencies and, if needed, with Dr. Lefohn at A.S.L. & Associates. The American Lung Association wishes to express its continued appreciation to the state and local air directors for their willingness to assist in ensuring that the characterized data used in this report are correct.

 

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 2021.
  2. 150 million people live in counties that received an F for either ozone or particle pollution in State of the Air 2020.
  3. More than 20.8 million people live in counties that got an F for all three air pollution measures in State of the Air 2020.
  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 and cardiovascular disease.
  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. Climate change enhances conditions for ozone to form and makes it harder to keep ozone from forming.
  16. Climate change increases the risk of wildfires that spread particle pollution and ozone in the smoke.
  17. This Administration is trying to roll back or create loopholes in core healthy air protections under the Clean Air Act. The Lung Association opposes these actions that will add pollution to the air we breathe.
  18. 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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