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Study Shows Over 40% of Americans Exposed to Unhealthy Air Quality Levels

Nearly 40% of the U.S. population now resides in regions where air pollution levels are considered unhealthy, a concerning trend exacerbated by climate change, reveals a recent report by the American Lung Association. 

The report, marking the organization’s 25th annual “State of the Air” analysis, indicates an increase of nearly 12 million people living under these conditions compared to last year, totaling 131 million individuals affected between 2020 and 2022.

The analysis highlights an alarming increase in days marked as “very unhealthy” or “hazardous” for air quality, the highest ever recorded by the survey. 

Katherine Pruitt, the national senior director for clean air policy at the American Lung Association, expressed concern that the progress achieved through the Clean Air Act is being undermined by climate change effects like heat, drought, and particularly wildfires, which are rapidly becoming a significant source of pollution.

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Experts warn that the escalation of wildfire smoke, fueled by rising greenhouse gas emissions and higher temperatures, is likely to continue. 

This trend aligns with findings from a study published in the journal Nature last year, which estimated that wildfire smoke has negated approximately 25% of the air quality gains made since the Clean Air Act’s enactment.

Dr. Lisa Patel, a pediatrician at Stanford Medicine Children’s Health and an advocate for renewable energy, emphasized that the root problem is the continued burning of fossil fuels. 

She advocates for political action to harness available technology and federal investments in renewable energy to mitigate the situation.

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The American Lung Association’s report annually reviews three years of air quality data concerning ozone exposure and particle pollution. 

This year’s report found that nearly 44 million people live in areas failing all three air quality criteria. 

Particulate matter, tiny enough to penetrate deep into the lungs and even enter the bloodstream, has been linked to various health issues, including asthma, lung cancer, and chronic lung diseases, as well as preterm births and pregnancy losses.

Patel highlighted an increase in preterm births during periods of intense wildfires, noting that both heat and wildfires significantly impact pregnancy outcomes. 

She reported seeing more patients experiencing early labor during such times, underscoring that these environmental factors are beyond individual control.

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The report also pointed out that while the industrial Midwest and Northeast once dominated concerns over particle pollution, the West, particularly California, now hosts the cities most affected by daily particle pollution. 

This shift is attributed to effective pollution control measures in the East and the overwhelming impact of climate change and wildfires in the West.

Despite efforts to control emissions from transportation and industry, challenges remain, especially with the U.S. Supreme Court’s limitations on using the Clean Air Act to reduce greenhouse gasses. 

Nonetheless, the report does offer a glimmer of hope, noting a significant reduction in ozone pollution, with 2.4 million fewer people living in areas with unhealthy ozone levels compared to the previous year.

As wildfire smoke continues to worsen, affecting air quality more than ever before, the push for stringent environmental policies and the transition to renewable energy sources becomes increasingly crucial to combat the adverse effects of air pollution on public health.