Particle Pollution, Smog Harm Half of All Americans

WASHINGTON, DC, April 30, 2004 (ENS) - Over half the people in the United States, 55 percent, live in counties where the levels of ozone or particle pollution are harmful to their health, says a new report from the American Lung Association. The Los Angeles Metropolitan Area is the worst, the report finds, both for ground level ozone, or smog, and for particle pollution, which the association assessed for the first time this year.

The two next most contaminated cities for both pollutants are Fresno and Bakersfield, in California's Central Valley.

"State of the Air: 2004" shows that some 159 million Americans live in 441 counties where they are exposed to unhealthy levels of air pollution either in the form of ozone or in the form of short term or year round levels of particles.

When it comes to measuring ground level ozone, seven out of the 10 worst cities are all in California, and when measured at the county level, California takes the bottom again.

“Americans need to know about unhealthy air pollution in their communities,” said John Kirkwood, American Lung Association president and CEO. “The threat may be invisible to the human eye, but it is real - and it can kill."

"This is why the American Lung Association is fighting hard to protect tools in the Clean Air Act that can clean up the pollution - a tool that the administration has taken steps to roll back,” said Kirkwood.

This aerial view shows air pollution at San Pedro in Los Angeles County. (Photo courtesy Caltrans)
The association is using the results of its report to urge Americans to contact members of Congress to oppose any bills that would weaken the Clean Air Act and to oppose the Bush Administration’s Clear Skies Initiative, which it says is less protective than the Clean Air Act.

America's air would be even dirtier without 34 years of protection under the Clean Air Act, according to the the Lung Association, which says, "The air is cleaner than it was in 1970. However, cleaner is not clean enough."

There are clean air cities in the United States too. Santa Fe, New Mexico tops the association's list of Top 25 Cleanest Cities for Year-Round Particle Pollution. Honolulu, Hawaii is second, and Cheyenne, Wyoming is third cleanest in the nation.

For the first time, the American Lung Association’s annual report on the state of the country's air uses data from a new, national air quality surveillance network to go beyond its traditional analysis of smog, or ozone air pollution, to include particle pollution.

Ranked fourth worst for short term particle pollution is Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, followed by Eugene-Springfield, Oregon in fifth worst place. Birmingham, Alabama is sixth; Salt Lake City is next, and then California cities show up again - the capital Sacramento, and Visalia, again in the Central Valley.

For the first time, the American Lung Association’s annual State of the Air report uses data from a new, national air quality surveillance network to go beyond its usual analysis of smog to include particle pollution.

These particles, produced by power plant emissions, diesel exhaust and wood burning, among other sources, are complex microscopic bits that are one-thirtieth the width of a human hair.

Rush hour in Denver, Colorado where particle pollution is a problem for the 10,000 kids and 32,000 adults with asthma. (Photo by Warren Gretz courtesy NREL)
They can cause serious health problems even at relatively low concentrations and are responsible for tens of thousands of premature deaths in the U.S. each year, according to the report.

People with cardiovascular diseases, children and the elderly are most vulnerable to the health risks associated with particle pollution, as are tens of millions of people who suffer from chronic lung disease such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

“The dangerous thing about these fine particles is that they are tiny enough to penetrate the body’s natural defense systems,” said Norman Edelman, MD, the American Lung Association’s consultant for scientific affairs. “This means when you inhale these particles, they embed themselves deep in the lungs. Some may even pass through the lungs to the blood.”

The South Coast Air Quality Management District is the government agency responsible for air pollution in the urbanized portions of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. District experts say particle pollution comes in a wide variety of compounds and sizes. Sea salt, blowing soil, road dust, soot and smoke, pollen, nitrate and sulfate from industries are just a few of these substances.

The complex and dangerous health effects of particle pollution were confirmed in a National Research Council report released in March 2004.

The American Lung Association report has plenty of numbers to consider. Specifically at risk for particle pollution are:

* The 16.7 million people with cardiovascular disease living in areas with unhealthy short-term particle pollution levels such as Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, or Eugene. Even short-term exposure – several hours to several days – has been linked to premature death, heart attacks and stroke, the Lung Association says.

* The 3.6 million adults and a 1.4 million children with asthma exposed to unhealthy year-round particle levels such as those living in Los Angeles, California's Central Valley, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Atlanta or Cleveland.

* The 2.6 million people with chronic bronchitis and 888,000 with emphysema living in areas with short term particle pollution.

There are ways for parents to protect their children from unhealthy air, and most of them involve awareness and physical activity. The Lung Association says parents should try to limit the amount of time their child spends outdoors in vigorous play if the air quality is unhealthy.

All children’s outdoor activities should be as far as possible from busy roadways and other sources of pollution, the association advises.

Here are some don'ts: Don't smoke around children, especially indoors, and don't let others smoke in your home or car. Do not burn wood, which creates particle pollution indoors and out. Don’t burn trash either.

And here are some do's: Encourage your child to walk, use bicycles and take public transportation. Walk, bike and take public transportation with your child to encourage him or her to help clean up the air.

Encourage your child’s school to look at ways to clean up school buses, the association says. "While school buses are a safe way for children to get to school, most buses use heavily polluting diesel engines. Newer fuels and engines are cleaner. Many school systems are using EPA’s Clean School Bus Campaign to clean up these dirty emissions."

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