Hundreds of millions of people are living in the 896 counties for which there is data for at least one pollutant in this year’s report. The proportion of the population in those counties varies by pollutant (see Figure 4). The majority of U.S. counties actually don’t have monitors – which means that many communities, especially rural ones, don’t have official monitored information on their air quality. It is important to note that the population numbers included in this section are only for those places that collect air pollution data, and do not reflect the entire population of these groups in the U.S.

Population grades pie charts

All of the 135 million Americans living in places with unhealthy levels of ozone or particle pollution are at risk of harm to their health. But some groups of people are especially vulnerable to illness and death from their exposure.

The number of people in these high-risk groups in “State of the Air” 2021 are as follows:

  • People of color – Almost 70 million people of color live in counties that received at least one failing grade for ozone and/or particle pollution. Nearly 14 million people of color live in counties that received failing grades on all three measures, including 9.7 million Hispanics.
  • People experiencing poverty – More than 15.8 million people with incomes meeting the federal poverty definition live in counties that received an F for at least one pollutant. Nearly 2.8 million people in poverty live in counties failing all three measures.
  • Children and older adults – Nearly 30.6 million children under age 18 and 20.1 million adults age 65 and over live in counties that received an F for at least one pollutant. Almost 4.9 million children and 2.9 million seniors and live in counties failing all three measures.
  • People with underlying health conditions
    • Asthma – 2.3 million children and 9.2 million adults with asthma live in counties that received an F for at least one pollutant. More than 358,000 children and nearly 1.3 million adults with asthma live in counties failing all three measures.
    • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) –Nearly 5.9 million people with COPD live in counties that received an F for at least one pollutant. Almost 717,000 people with COPD live in counties failing all three measures.
    • Lung Cancer—More than 67,000 people diagnosed with lung cancer in 2017 live in counties that received an F for at least one pollutant. More than 8,400 people diagnosed with lung cancer live in counties failing all three measures.
    • Cardiovascular Disease – More than 7.9 million people with cardiovascular disease live in counties that received an F for at least one pollutant. Over 1 million people live in counties failing all three measures.
  • People with a smoking history – There is some recent evidence suggesting that people who have a history of smoking are at greater risk of premature death and of lung cancer when subjected to long-term exposure to fine particle pollution than never-smokers. Over 14.6 million Americans who have ever smoked live in counties that received at least one F for particle pollution. Of those, some 5.4 million people live in counties that received failing grades for both particle measures.

Shared Story Spotlight: Rebecca B.

Rebecca B has had asthma all her life. There were countless times as a child when she was rushed to the hospital with an asthma attack, and even as an adult, little things like the smell of cigarette smoke on someone's clothes could set off her wheezing.

“I grew up and spent my adult life in an area with poor air quality. I learned to manage my triggers early, but there were and continue to be some I couldn't control, including the particulate matter in the air in my community. Whenever I leave my home, I have to be vigilant – Every. Single. Time. Constantly aware of the air quality of the places I go, I’m often not able to stay in an area because of the poor air quality. Always armed with a rescue inhaler, I go and ‘do’ my life with enthusiasm but am always ever cautious of poor air, because I know I have to fight to breathe.”

 

Did You Know?

  1. Nearly 5 out of 10 people live where the air they breathe earned an F in State of the Air 2020.
  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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