The past week's headlines from China have made for some grim reading: Smog So Thick, Beijing Comes to a Standstill. Beijing Smog Problem Is Even Worse Than You Think. Beijing Declares 'Red Alert' Over Pollution: Haze Visible from Space.
And Beijing, despite being held up as the exemplar of all that is wrong when rapidly growing economies combine with lack of environmental policies, isn't even the worst culprit: According to some analyses, New Delhi's air quality was 1.5 times worse over the last week. Indeed, according to a recent World Health Organization ranking of air pollution in cities globally, Delhi is the very worst of the worst, and Beijing isn't even in the top 20.
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We can console ourselves that such appalling levels of pollution don't occur here in the United States, largely due to decades of clean air regulations and improvements in emissions technology in the likes of automobiles. But a study by the American Lung Association earlier this year nonetheless found that 138.5 million people-almost 44 percent of the nation-live where pollution levels are, at least part of the time, too often dangerous to breathe, although in many cases the situation is improving.
The report looked at three main forms of pollution: ozone, year-round particle pollution, and short-term spikes in particle pollution. Five California cities occupied the top spots for both the particle pollution lists:
1. Fresno-Madera 2. Bakersfield 3. Visalia-Porterville-Hanford 4. Modesto-Merced 5. Los Angeles-Long Beach For ozone, the list is a little different, with Los Angeles-Long Beach leading the pack, ahead of Visalia-Porterville-Hanford, Bakersfield, Fresno-Madera and another California conurbation, Sacramento-Roseville.
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There's no great mystery as to why some cities might be more likely to feature on the list than others, especially when a glance down the listings reveals such names as New York, Las Vegas, Dallas, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia: places with lots of people driving lots of cars and with high energy demand met by fossil-fuel-burning power plants. But there are other contributory factors, too, with geography and climate playing significant roles.
The ALA report notes, for example, that many cities had a record number of days with high short-term particle pollution, particularly in the West, where continuing drought and heat may have increased dust, grass fires and wildfires; while burning wood as a heat source appears to contribute to the problem in many smaller cities. The impact of climate change is particularly apparent in the West where the heat and drought create situations ripe for episodes of high particle days.
Overall, however, the situation in much of the United States is one of progress. Thanks to stronger standards for pollutants and for the sources of pollution, the United States has seen continued reduction in ozone and particle pollution as well as other pollutants for decades.
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Environmental Protection Agency figures show that since 1970, the air has become cleaner even as the population, the economy, energy use and miles driven have increased. This trend is true over a shorter time frame too: The economy continues to grow after the recession, but overall air emissions that create the six most widespread pollutants continue to drop.
The greatest progress came in the continued reduction of year-round particle pollution in the eastern half of the nation, thanks to cleaner diesel fleets and cleaner fuels used in power plants.
But if you're looking for a place where you can take a deep, clean breath without any concerns, six cities topped the ALA list as the cleanest of the clean: They had no days when the air quality reached the unhealthy level for ozone or short-term particle pollution and they were on the list of the cleanest cities for year-round particle pollution.
So, take a bow Bismarck, N.D. Cape Coral-Fort Myers-Naples, Fla.; Elmira-Corning, N.Y.; Fargo-Wahpeton, N.D.-Minn.; Rapid City-Spearfish, S.D.; and, ensuring the Golden State has representation on the cleanest list as well, Salinas, Calif.