Lung Association: 142 Million Americans Are Breathing Dirty\r\nAir

May 3, 2002
The findings are compounded by the fact that due to a series of legal and management delays, states are relying on weak federal clean air standards in place since 1979.

Having trouble breathing lately? Waking up feeling like you spent the night in a smoky room, even though you didn't? Are you suffering from irritated eyes, a scratchy throat and more allergies than ever? It's no wonder, says the American Lung Association.

The state of the air in the year 2002 is bad, according to the group, with more than 142 million Americans 75 percent of the nation's population living in counties with ozone monitors breathing unhealthy amounts of ozone air pollution (smog).

This marks the third straight year in which the toxic pollutant reached fully half of the American public, according to the American Lung Association's State of the Air 2002 report. Of those living in the 678 counties monitoring ozone, the vast majority of the most vulnerable the elderly and asthmatic children lived in the nearly 400 counties receiving an "F" grade. The American Lung Association complains that the findings are compounded by the fact that due to a series of legal and management delays, states are relying on weak federal clean air standards in place since 1979.

The 10 most ozone-polluted metropolitan areas are Los Angeles-Riverside-Orange County, Calif.; Bakersfield, Calif.; Fresno, Calif.; Visalia-Tulare-Porterville, Calif.; Houston-Galveston-Brazoria, Texas; Atlanta; Merced, Calif.; Knoxville, Tenn.; Charlotte-Gastonia-Rock Hill, N.C.-S.C.; and Sacramento-Yolo, Calif.

"It is clearly time to get serious about enforcing all of the provisions of the Clean Air Act so that we place Americans' health above business and political interests," said John L. Kirkwood, American Lung Association president and CEO. "Yes, we've made great progress in cleaning our nation's air, but this report illustrates that we have a long way to go to give our children safe air to breathe."

The release of State of the Air 2002 also marks the beginning of the American Lung Association's annual Clean Air Month campaign. The report examines ozone air quality data for 1998-2000, which is the most recent quality-assured data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The report grades and ranks counties on how often their air quality reaches "unhealthful" categories of the EPA's Air Quality Index for ozone air pollution.

While communities have worked to implement the Clean Air Act and improve outdoor air quality, a series of legal and other issues have led to some of the most significant protections being "on hold" for the last five years, according to Kirkwood. He says the American Lung Association is "gravely concerned" about risks to continued progress toward cleaner air. Threats come from two areas, says the association: continued delays in implementing the 1997 ozone standards and proposals to roll back key provisions of the Clean Air Act.

"More protective ozone standards effectively have been on hold due to challenges by industry, which have kept states relying on weaker standards they have used since 1979," Kirkwood said. "Somehow, industry believes it needs to continue to pollute. They have fought every step we've taken toward cleaner air for all Americans. Now is the time for EPA to act. What could be more basic?"

The nation is still using the ozone standard set in 1979, despite the evidence of numerous scientific studies showing that thousands of people are harmed and despite EPA's adoption of tighter standards five years ago. EPA issued a new, final National Ambient Air Quality Standard for ozone in 1997, but has not designated "nonattainment areas" for the new ozone standard (although required to do so legally by 2001).

In addition, the Bush administration's EPA is considering scrapping a provision of the Clean Air Act called New Source Review, which requires approximately 17,000 of the nation's oldest and dirtiest power plants, oil refineries and other industrial facilities to meet emissions standards applicable to new facilities by installing up-to-date pollution control devices. Rolling back the New Source Review protections would be the greatest attempt to weaken the Clean Air Act since its enactment, according to the American Lung Association, which opposes any effort to dilute the current level of protections.

"Because America's oldest, dirtiest facilities have remained exempt from modern emissions standards, they continue to spew increasing amounts of toxins into our air," Kirkwood explained. "In the Clean Air Act, Congress told companies that if they made any modifications that resulted in increased pollution, they were responsible for installing state-of-the-art pollution controls so that the old plants would meet the same requirements as new ones. Rolling back those provisions would give these old plants the right to pollute for as long as their owners can keep them going."

Highlights of the State of the Air 2002:

  • Four counties on the list of the 25 most ozone-polluted counties this year were not on the list last year: DeKalb and Fayette counties, Ga.; Sacramento, Calif.; and Maricopa, Ariz. Among the 25 most ozone-polluted metropolitan areas this year, two Birmingham, Ala., and Macon, Ga. were not on last year's list.
  • Four metro areas came off the list of the 25 most ozone-polluted between 2001 and 2002: Pittsburgh and Lancaster, Penn.; Richmond-Petersburg, Va.; and Louisville. Five counties Camden, N.J.; Imperial, Calif.; Charles and Prince George's, Md.; and Denton, Texas all dropped off that roster. Those localities, however, continued to receive an "F" grade; there were just other counties and metropolitan areas that topped them on the list.
  • With the exception of Des Moines, Iowa, which dropped off the list, the rest of the metropolitan areas with the least ozone air pollution last year continued to remain consistent. In the following metropolitan areas, all of the counties with monitoring sites received an "A": Bellingham, Wash.; Colorado Springs, Colo.; Duluth-Superior, Minn./Wis.; Fargo-Moorhead, N.D./Minn.; Flagstaff, Ariz./Utah; Honolulu; Laredo, Texas; Lincoln, Neb.; McAllen-Edinburg-Mission, Texas; Salinas, Calif.; and Spokane, Wash.

"While we continue to see millions of Americans affected by smog, it is important to realize that our nation's air has improved greatly since the Clean Air Act became law in 1970," Kirkwood explained. "Those improvements are attributable directly to the strengths of the Clean Air Act and the efforts of government agencies and community partners who have worked hard to improve air quality."

The American Lung Association wants concerned citizens to contact President Bush and Congress to state their opposition to weakening the Clean Air Act, whether by weakening EPA enforcement or by rolling back important protections of the act. Anyone wishing to register his or her concerns can do so through the Lung Association's Web site at

edited by Sandy Smith ([email protected])

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