America’s Most Polluted Cities


By Michael B. Sauter, Alexander E. M. Hess and Samuel Weigley,

There’s no doubt that great strides have been made in air pollution. Awareness, stricter legislation and improved technology have all contributed to improved air, land and water conditions. In fact, the nation’s air quality is much cleaner than it was in some of the worst-affected areas, according to a recent report by the American Lung Association. Air emissions that contribute to pollutants have fallen since 1970 thanks to the Clean Air Act.

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Despite the improvements, 4 in 10 Americans live where pollution levels are often dangerous to breath. Since the ALA began studying particle pollution, 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 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 our bodily defenses and cause 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, as well as the number of days that the air pollution hit unhealthily high levels. Based on the average levels of long-term pollution measured by the report between 2009 and 2011, these are the most polluted cities in the country.

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.

Janice Nolen, the ALA’s assistant vice president for national policy, noted that the San Joaquin valley has had major agricultural growth in recent years. Agriculture creates pollution in a variety of ways, from the actual tending of the crops to the vehicles that bring supplies in and food out. A review of Census data shows that agriculture, fishing and forestry represent more than 10% of the economy in many of the highly polluted metro areas, compared to just the roughly 2% of all jobs nationwide.

The Los Angeles port is also a major source of pollution, with the diesel exhaust from the oceangoing ships generating significant particle pollution. While part of the high pollution levels in these cities comes from local sources, Nolen noted that much of it also comes from being downwind from cities that are even larger producers of pollution.

In the case of the California cities, it is their proximity to Los Angeles. “California has historically had the biggest challenge in its cities. Part of that is the sources, and part of it is the geography — pollution that might blow somewhere else gets captured in the valleys.”

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.

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This improvement reflects the state’s efforts to deal with the problem, Nolen explained. “California has really been, in many ways, leading the nation, because they recognized they had the worst problems.” When the Clean Air Act was signed into law in 1970 the state was given additional resources and authority to be “more aggressive,” said Nolan.

One of the problems the state has focused on is car emissions. “Cars in California have been required to be much cleaner, and some of those standards have been adopted in other parts of the country,” she said. The state is also trying to cut down on other sources of pollution like wood burning.

The only two metro areas on this list that aren’t located in California are Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. Much of the pollution problems in these areas are due to substantial industrial presence. Nolen mentioned that much of the pollution in Pittsburgh is due to the U.S. Steel Plant. The coal industry’s presence in Cincinnati is also a major factor in pollution as big companies such as Duke Energy operate plants in the region.

Based on average long-term particle pollution figures 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:

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.

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.

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.

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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.

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.

To see the other 5 most polluted U.S. cities, visit 24/7 Wall St.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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