America's most polluted metro areas
Despite great strides in some areas, one-fourth of Americans still live in places where air pollution carries health risks. And most of the worst problems are found in California.
By Alexander E.M. Hess, Michael Sauter and Samuel Weigley, 24/7 Wall St.
There's no doubt that great strides have been made in fighting pollution. Awareness, stricter legislation and improved technology have all contributed to improved air, land and water quality. In fact, the nation’s air is much cleaner than it once was even in some of the worst-affected areas, according to a recent report by the American Lung Association.
But despite the improvements, 1 in 4 Americans live where air pollution levels are still often dangerous to breath.
Since the ALA began reporting regularly on the issue, almost all of the most-polluted cities have consistently remained among the worst. Pittsburgh has been one of the 10 most-polluted cities since 2004. The cities of Bakersfield and Merced, in California, are the most polluted cities in the U.S. this year and have been among the 25 most polluted since at least 2004. They are among many California cities, including Los Angeles, that have struggled with pollution for some time.
The ALA’s 2013 "State of the Air'' report measures cities and metropolitan areas based on low-lying ozone pollution, as well as both short- and long-term particle pollution. These particles, just 1/30th the diameter of a human hair, are capable of getting past bodily defenses and causing physical harm, particularly to those who already suffer from pulmonary diseases, the very young and the elderly. The report measures both the total accumulated particle pollution over the course of a year and the number of days that air pollution hit unhealthily high levels.
Read on for the five most-polluted cities. And visit 24/7 Wall St. for a complete report and five more.
Eight of the 10 most-polluted cities are located in California and are either on the coast or in the San Joaquin Valley. Conditions that make pollution in the valley worse are extremely heavy traffic, which accounts for as much at 89% of all pollution in the valley, and high levels of agriculture in the area.But a review of the pollution levels in these California cities shows that while they remain among the worst in the country for both particle and ozone pollution, they have been improving markedly in recent years. Los Angeles, for example, has reduced its number of unhealthy particle pollution days by more than 50% since 2000.
The only two metro areas on this list that aren’t located in California are Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. Much of the pollution in these areas is due to substantial industrial presence.
Based on average long-term data collected by the ALA between 2009 and 2011, 24/7 Wall St. identified the 10 most polluted cities in the country. Merced’s year-round particle pollution ranked as the worst in the nation, in a tie with the Bakersfield-Delano metro area. We also reviewed ozone pollution and short-term particle pollution, which the ALA measured as the number of days between 2009 and 2011 where pollution levels were deemed unhealthy. For each of these metropolitan areas, the ALA noted the population and the number of people in the area with health problems that high pollution can exacerbate, such as asthma and cardiovascular disease.
These are America's five most-polluted cities and metropolitan areas.
1. Bakersfield-Delano, Calif.
> Year-round particle pollution rank: worst (tied for first)
> Unhealthy ozone pollution rank: 3th worst
> Residents with asthma: 68,419
> Population: 851,710
Along with Merced, no city had more of a problem with pollution than the Bakersfield metropolitan area. The ozone air quality was considered unhealthy for sensitive populations an average of 199 days per year from 2009 to 2011, while it was considered flat-out unhealthy in another 24. Fortunately, the average number of unhealthy days in the last two years dropped 44% since 1996-1998, despite the fact that population grew 41% in just the last decade. The area has resorted to unusually high-tech solutions to combat pollution. Earlier this year, NASA flew aircrafts over the area equipped with scientific tools to experiment with ways to better measure air quality.
2. Merced, Calif.
> Year-round particle pollution rank: worst (tied for first)
> Unhealthy ozone pollution rank: 11th worst
> Residents with asthma: 20,837
> Population: 259,898
Merced’s year-round particle pollution ranked as the worst in the nation, in a tie with the Bakersfield-Delano metro area. While the metro area did not rank as poorly for the number of days with especially unhealthy particle pollution, the figure has been on the rise in recent years. In response to the figures released by the ALA, Merced mayor Stan Thurston defended the city to the Merced Sun Star, claiming that much of the pollution actually comes from the San Francisco Bay Area. According to the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, an estimated 27% of emissions measured in Merced county originated in either the San Francisco Bay Area or Sacramento area.
3. Fresno-Madera, Calif.
> Year-round particle pollution rank: 3rd worst
> Unhealthy ozone pollution rank: 4th worst
> Residents with asthma: 88,136
> Population: 1,095,829
In addition to being ranked as the third-worst place in America for year-round particle pollution in 2009-2011, the greater Fresno area ranked among the worst for the number of individual days where particle pollution was especially high, as well as the number of days with elevated ozone levels. Just over 1 million people live in the greater Fresno-Madera area, and more than 224,000 of them suffer from some sort of cardiovascular disease, the symptoms of which can be aggravated by pollution. Some of the area’s pollution troubles may be due to the high numbers of commuters. The area's population rose 15.7% between 2000 and 2010.
4. Hanford-Corcoran, Calif.
> Year-round particle pollution rank: 4th worst
> Unhealthy ozone pollution rank: 5th worst
> Residents with asthma: 12,388
> Population: 153,765
Although the Hanford metropolitan area is less than 1% the size of the Los Angeles area, the pollution problem is even bigger. From 2009 to 2011, Hanford area had 98 days on average per year where ozone pollution was considered unhealthy for sensitive populations, and seven additional days where it was considered unhealthy altogether. Similarly, there were 89 days where particle pollution was considered unhealthy for sensitive populations, and an additional 21 days where it was considered downright unhealthy. The Hanford area is in the San Joaquin Valley, which generally suffers from very poor air quality. It is also next to Bakersfield and Hanford, the worst and third-worst metros in terms of air pollution. Of the area's population of nearly 154,000 people, more than 12,000 have asthma, the symptoms of which are exacerbated by high pollution levels.
5. Los Angeles-Long Beach-Riverside, Calif.
> Year-round particle pollution rank: 5th worst
> Unhealthy ozone pollution rank: 1st worst
> Residents with asthma: 1,464,217
> Population: 18,081,569
The greater Los Angeles area is home to more than 18 million people, more than twice the combined population of all nine other metro areas on this list. With many, if not most, residents driving regularly -- the area is among the worst for traffic congestion -- air quality in the greater Los Angeles area has suffered. Almost 4 million residents of the greater metro area suffer from cardiovascular disease -- the symptoms of which can be made-worse by exposure to high levels of air pollution. No other area in the country had more high ozone days than Los Angeles, which was the only city that averaged over 100 such days per year between 2009 and 2011. According to the Los Angeles Daily News, the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which oversees air quality in the greater Los Angeles area, is working to reduce emissions from older diesel vehicles and is pitching an emission-free system for moving cargo containers at local ports.
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