41% of Americans Live in Counties with Dangerous Levels of Air Pollution

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Today, the American Lung Association released its State of the Air 2012 report, on the quality of the air in the U.S., and as these things tend to go, the good news is always tempered with some bad. Let's go ahead and get the bad out of the way.

For the time period from 2008 to 2010, 41 percent of Americans -- that's a full 127 million -- lived in counties with "unhealthful levels of either ozone or particle pollution" -- the first being an invisible gas responsible for 3,700 deaths in the U.S. annually, according to one study; the second being cough-inducing soot hanging in the air that casts a haze over some cities. What does "unhealthy" mean in this context? As the association's Janice Nolen put it to the Huffington Post, "we are not yet at the point where we're providing air that doesn't send people to the emergency room," with those most at risk being the usual suspects: the young, the elderly, the poor (who tend to live in polluted areas), and those with lung or heart disease.

Of course, well-intentioned people can set different standards for what constitutes air pollution, so what pertinent in these reports is how the levels of pollution fluctuate year to year. And here we see good news. In 2007-2009, 50.3 percent of Americans were living in areas with dangerous air pollution. In 2006-2008, 58 percent were. So there's improvement, which the ALA is quick to politicize by crediting the Clean Air Act right at the top of its findings. That's the bill, which George H.W. Bush once called one of his greatest legislative accomplishments, that current House Republicans are currently trying to defang.

Personally, though, our takeaway is that next time we travel west, we're wearing a gas mask. In all three pollution categories the American Lung Association examined, the top five cities are all in California, always including, in no particular order, Los Angeles, Visalia, Bakersfield, and Fresno (with Modesto and Hanford trading spots on different lists). At least this explains why Californians take environmental issues so seriously.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.