The State of the Air 2016

Posted by Content Coordinator on Monday, April 25th, 2016


The “State of the Air 2016” found continued improvement in air quality in 2012–2014, showing lower levels of year-round particle pollution and ozone. Still, more than half of all Americans—166 million people—live in counties where they are exposed to unhealthful levels of these pollutants.

The “State of the Air 2016” report shows that cleaning up pollution continues successfully in much of the nation. In the 25 cities with the worst pollution, the majority saw improvements from last year. Many saw their lowest levels ever of year-round particle pollution or ozone pollution.

Yet, even as most cities experienced strong improvement, too many cities suffered worse episodes of unhealthy air. While most of the nation has much cleaner air quality than even a decade ago, a few cities reported their worst number of unhealthy days since the report began, including some that experienced extreme weather events. The “State of the Air 2016” report provides evidence that a changing climate will make it harder to protect human health.

The “State of the Air 2016” report shows that, even with continued improvement, too many people in the United States live where the air is unhealthy for them to breathe. Despite that continued need and the nation’s progress, some people seek to weaken the Clean Air Act, the public health law that has driven the cuts in pollution since 1970, and to undermine the ability of the nation to fight for healthy air.

The “State of the Air 2016” report looks at levels of ozone and particle pollution found in official monitoring sites across the United States in 2012, 2013, and 2014. The report uses the most current quality-assured nationwide data available for these analyses.

The report examines particle pollution (PM2.5) in two different ways: averaged year-round (annual average) and over short-term levels (24-hour). For both ozone and short-term particle pollution, the analysis uses a weighted average number of days that allows recognition of places with higher levels of pollution. For the year-round particle pollution rankings, the report uses averages calculated and reported by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). For comparison, the “State of the Air 2015” report covered data from 2011, 2012, and 2013.

Thanks to stronger standards for pollutants and for the sources of pollution, the United States has seen continued reduction in ozone and particle pollution as well as other pollutants for decades. Figure 1 from the EPA shows that since 1970, the air has gotten cleaner while the population, the economy, energy use and miles driven increased greatly. As the economy continues to grow, overall air emissions that create the six most-widespread pollutants continue to drop.

Overall, the best progress came in the continued reduction of ozone and year-round particle pollution, thanks to cleaner power plants and increased use of cleaner vehicles and engines. Continued progress to cleaner air remains crucial to reduce the risk of premature death, asthma attacks and lung cancer. However, a changing climate is making it harder to protect human health.

Many cities reduced their ozone pollution in 2012–2014 below that reported in 2011–2013. In 2015, EPA updated and strengthened the national ozone standard, officially recognizing that ozone is unhealthy to breathe at lower levels than previously thought. In preparing “State of the Air 2016,” the Lung Association reexamined all the ozone data for all prior years, back to 1996–1998 covered by the first report in 2000, using the new standard. Even using that more protective standard, six of the 25 most ozone-polluted cities reported their fewest unhealthy ozone days ever.

Sixteen of the most-polluted cities had their lowest year-round particle pollution levels in the history of this report. Still, some cities had higher year-round levels and one city reported its highest levels.

Unfortunately, many cities suffered more spikes in short-term particle pollution, particularly in the West, where continuing drought and heat may have increased the dust, grass and wild fires, while burning wood as a heat source appears to contribute to the problem in many smaller cities. Seven of the 25 most-polluted cities had their highest number of unhealthy days on average ever reported.

Still missing, however, are particle pollution data from all of Illinois, Florida and most of Tennessee because of problems with data processing in laboratories and other data issues. This means that no one knows if the levels of particle pollution were unhealthy in many cities that have historic problems with particle pollution, including Chicago and St. Louis.

Los Angeles remains the metropolitan area with the worst ozone pollution, as it has for all but one of the 16 reports. However, Los Angeles reported its best air quality ever in the State of the Air report’s history, with the lowest average year-round particles, and fewest high-ozone and high-particle days. Bakersfield (CA) returned to the top of both lists for most-polluted for particle pollution, thanks to worse year-round and short-term exposures.

Steps taken under the Clean Air Act have driven the cleanup of pollution seen in this year’s report. Cleaning up power plants has helped drive the reduction in year-round particles and ozone, especially in the middle and eastern states. The retirement of old, dirty diesel engines has also reduced emissions.

At the same time, climate change has increased the challenges to protecting public health. The rise in short-term particle pollution provides current examples of how major changes in drought and rainfall are already affecting public health. Wildfires and drought, along with high use of wood-burning devices for heat, coupled with stagnant weather patterns that concentrated pollution in some areas, contributed to the extraordinarily high numbers of days with unhealthy particulate matter in 2012–2014.

Figure 1: Air pollution emissions have dropped steadily since 1970 thanks to the Clean Air Act

What Needs to Be Done

Our nation has made significant progress, but clearly more must be done to reduce the burden of air pollution and improve the health of millions of Americans. Cleaning up air pollution requires a strong and coordinated effort on the part of our federal and state leaders. The President, the EPA Administrator, members of Congress, governors and state leaders all have a key role to play. These current and future leaders have a choice to make: either support steps to improve the air we breathe so that it does not cause or worsen lung disease, or allow pressure from polluting industries to weaken healthy air protections. The Lung Association urges our nation’s leaders to stand up for public health and take these important steps for to improve the air we all breathe.

Protect the Clean Air Act

Our nation’s continued air quality improvement shown in the “State of the Air 2016” report is possible because of the Clean Air Act, a strong public health law put in place by an overwhelming bipartisan majority in Congress more than 45 years ago. The Clean Air Act requires that the EPA and each state take steps to clean up the air and protect public health by reducing pollution. Unfortunately, some in Congress continue to seek weakening changes to the Clean Air Act that would dismantle progress made in the last 45 years and make it harder to achieve future reductions. To achieve the promise of the Clean Air Act, Congress must protect the Clean Air Act—making sure it remains strong, fully implemented and enforced.

Reduce Carbon Pollution from Power Plants by Adopting Strong State Clean Power Plans

In 2015 EPA adopted the Clean Power Plan, a flexible, practical toolkit for the states to reduce carbon pollution from power plants approximately 32 percent (below 2005 levels) by 2030. States can choose a variety of ways to cut carbon pollution with the Clean Power Plan. They can choose to require cleaner fuels for existing utilities, improve energy efficiency, produce more clean energy and partner with other states to jointly reduce carbon pollution. In February 2015, the Supreme Court issued a stay on the plan, putting EPA’s enforcement of the plan on a temporary hold while the case is heard in the courts. However, states can still move forward developing their plans.

Power plants are the largest stationary source of carbon pollution in the United States. The electric sector contributed 40 percent of all energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in 2013.1 Scientists tell us that carbon pollution contributes to a warming climate, enhancing conditions for ozone formation and making it harder to reduce this lethal pollutant. Climate change also leads to particle pollution from increased droughts and wildfires. Taking steps to reduce carbon pollution from electricity generation will also reduce ozone and particle pollution from these plants at the same time. EPA’s own analysis shows that these co-benefits can prevent up to 3,600 premature deaths and up to 90,000 asthma attacks in children in 2030. The Lung Association calls on governors to direct their states to develop strong plans to reduce carbon pollution from power plants and protect public health.

Set Strong Limits on Air Pollution that Blows Across State Lines

Air pollution, including ozone and particle pollution, can be transported by the wind hundreds of miles away from its source, placing a significant health burden on communities and states that have no ability to limit pollution from neighboring states. EPA has proposed a revised Cross-State Air Pollution Rule to reduce transported ozone pollution to protect downwind communities who otherwise have limited ability to intervene or protect themselves. The Lung Association urges EPA to adopt stronger limits on transported ozone pollution to help downwind states protect their citizens from pollution blown hundreds of miles across the nation.

Reduce Emissions from Existing and New Oil and Gas Operations

EPA needs to adopt health-protective standards to reduce harmful emissions of methane, volatile organic compounds and other pollutants from production wells, processing plants, transmission pipelines and storage units within the oil and natural gas industry. EPA has proposed standards for new and modified facilities, which is a crucial first step. But as this report went to press, the rules are not yet final. They must be finalized to begin to curb these emissions. Further, EPA needs to propose strong, enforceable standards for the existing oil and gas infrastructure without delay. These standards would not only help to mitigate climate change and its associated health risks by curtailing emissions of methane—an especially potent greenhouse gas—but would also limit emissions of major precursors to ozone, as well as other toxic and carcinogenic air pollutants, benefiting public health in communities across the country.

Clean Up Harmful Emissions from Dirty Diesel Vehicles and Heavy Equipment

Rules EPA put in effect over the past several years mean that new diesel vehicles and equipment must be much cleaner. Still, millions of diesel trucks, buses, and heavy equipment (such as bulldozers) will likely be in use for thousands more miles, spewing dangerous diesel exhaust into communities and neighborhoods. The good news is that affordable technology exists to cut emissions by 90 percent. Congress needs to fund EPA’s diesel cleanup (“retrofit”) program. Congress should also require that clean diesel equipment be used in federally-funded construction programs.

Download full version (PDF): The State of the Air 2016

About the American Lung Association
The American Lung Association is the leading organization working to save lives by improving lung health and preventing lung disease, through research, education and advocacy. Our work is focused on five strategic imperatives: to defeat lung cancer; to improve the air we breathe; to reduce the burden of lung disease on individuals and their families; to eliminate tobacco use and tobacco-related diseases; and to monitor and enhance organizational effectiveness.

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