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Cities With the Most Air Pollution Revealed

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Story at-a-glance -

  • The World Health Organization calls air pollution the “single biggest environmental health risk,” contributing to the early death of over 3.7 million people worldwide
  • Air pollution is affected by industrial waste products, car emissions, topography, weather, wind and a host of other factors, some of which you can control
  • California holds six of the top 10 spots for worst air pollution and two of the top 10 for best air quality
  • Air pollution is most commonly rated by number of particulates in the air, amount of ozone, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and lead

By Dr. Mercola

At some point in your adult life, you probably either moved from one state to another or considered moving. Was air quality ever a criterion when choosing a city to live in? Probably not.

There are a number of things you likely did consider, such as length of commute from home to job, schools, housing, cost of living, proximity to a geographical location you enjoy or if you knew anyone where you were planning to move.

But air pollution is probably not something that made your list of questions as you considered where to look for a new job. Although unseen and often unrecognized, air pollution plays a big role in your overall health and wellness.

Knowing which cities have the worst ratings, where the pollution originates and what you can do to reduce the effect on yourself and your family will go a long way toward improving the health of your lungs and reducing your risk of specific diseases.

Top Best and Worst Cities for Air Pollution

Just before Earth Day, April 22, 2016, the American Lung Association published its"State of the Air" report. Although the results were more positive than the report released in 2014, more than half of Americans continue to live in areas where they are exposed to unhealthy levels of air pollutants.1

The "State of the Air" reports lower levels of year-round particle and ozone pollution attributed to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Clean Air Act.

In 2015 the EPA revised its standards for particle and ozone pollution, making them stricter. However, there are experts who believe these stricter standards don't go far enough.2 You can probably guess some of the cities in the top 10 areas producing the worst air pollution.

Los Angeles-Long Beach, CA

Bakersfield, CA

Visalia-Porterville-Hanford, CA

Fresno-Madera, CA

Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale, AZ

Sacramento-Roseville, CA

Modesto-Merced, CA

Denver-Aurora, CO

Las Vegas-Henderson, NV

Fort Collins, CO

Six of the top 10 worst cities for air pollution are in California. According to the State of the Air report:

"Los Angeles remains the metropolitan area with the worst ozone pollution, as it has for all but one of the 16 reports. However, Los Angeles reported its best air quality ever in the 'State of the Air' report's history, with the lowest average year-round particles and fewest high-ozone and high-particle days.

 Bakersfield (CA) returned to the top of both lists for most polluted for particle pollution, thanks to worse year-round and short-term exposures."

The top 10 cities with the best air quality rating are:

Farmington, NM

Cheyenne, WY

Casper, WY

Kahului-Wailuku-Lahaina, HI

Honolulu, HI

Bismarck, ND

Elmira-Corning, NY

Salinas, CA

Redding-Red Bluff, CA

Fargo, ND

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What's in the Air?

The ratings were based on readings for particulate pollution and ozone in the air. Particulate pollution is also called particulate matter (PM) and is a term describing solid particles and liquid droplets.

Particles like dust, dirt, smoke or soot are large enough to be seen with the naked eye, while other particles are so small you need an electron microscope to see them.

The size of these inhalable particles is usually less than 10 micrometers. To put this in perspective, the diameter of the average hair is 70 micrometers, making your hair 30 times larger than the largest inhalable particulate.

These particles come in different sizes, shapes and sources. Primary PM can be made of hundreds of different chemicals and be from primary or secondary sources. The EPA regulates fine and coarse PM measuring less than 10 micrometers, but not larger particles, such as sand and dust.

Fine particulate matter, that is less than 2.5 micrometers, is responsible for reduced visibility. Because these molecules are so small, they can be inhaled deep into your lungs and even make it into your bloodstream.

Ozone is made up of oxygen molecules that protect our environment when they're located in the upper atmosphere of the Earth. But, when found closer to the Earth in the air we breathe, they present a significant health risk.

This ground level ozone isn't discharged directly into the air, but instead is created when volatile organic compounds and nitrous oxide react in the presence of sunlight.3

Emissions from automobiles and certain types of manufacturing pollution are the primary sources of the volatile organic compounds, the precursors to ozone pollution at ground level. This ozone is the main ingredient in "smog" pollution in larger cities.

What Else Is in the Air?

Although PM and the precursors to ozone pollution are the two largest types of air pollution, several others are monitored by the EPA, including sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and lead.

On-road and off-road vehicles are the primary contributors to carbon monoxide emissions. Sulfur dioxide is released with fuel combustion from electric generators and industrial and residential boilers using coal as the fuel source. Airplanes, industrial process and fuel combustion all contribute to the release of lead-based pollution into the air.

These emissions are not just poisoning the air in the U.S., but are also crossing the border into Canada. Detroit, Michigan is the U.S. home of the automobile industry and continues this industrial tradition today. Just across the Detroit River, east of Detroit, lies Windsor, Ontario.

The major source of air pollution plaguing Michigan and Windsor, Ontario is from sulfur dioxide. In 2013, 33.5 kilotons of sulfur dioxide were released into the air just miles from Windsor. This amounted to almost 15 percent of the total emissions of sulfur dioxide for the entire province of Ontario, and it originated in the U.S.4

Geography Contributes to Air Pollution

Proximity to industrial pollution is not the only geographical contributor to air pollution. Concentrations of pollutants vary over time and space related to topography, environmental conditions and sunlight.

There are a number of different factors contributing to the concentration of PM, ozone, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and lead in the air you breathe. For instance, the brighter the sunlight, the greater the amount of ozone that's produced from the precursors of volatile organic compounds and nitrous oxide.

The greater the speed of the wind, the lower the concentration of smog in the air. Wind direction also controls where the smog is dissipated. Think of mixing a quart of red dye in the ocean. Within a minute, the dye has dispersed and the water no longer looks red. But if you use the same amount of dye in a bathtub, the water continues to appear red because there isn't as much water for the red dye to be diluted.

Just like the dye is diluted in the ocean, air pollutants are quickly diluted in a large airshed, or area not restricted by mountains, valleys and meteorological limitations. When the weather and topography combine to prevent the dispersion of pollution, the air quality is compromised.

Mountains stop the horizontal transport of smog, trapping large amounts of pollutants in valleys. This is demonstrated by the high amount of pollution in the city of Los Angeles, most of which is located in the San Fernando Valley.

Health Risks Linked to Air Pollution

Air quality is intricately related to your health. Your body needs food, water and air to survive. When one of those necessary components is compromised, it can compromise your health.

Poor outdoor air quality has been linked to stroke, heart disease, and both chronic and acute respiratory diseases, such as asthma or lung cancer. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that outdoor air pollution was responsible for 3.7 million premature deaths worldwide in 2012.5 Approximately 88 percent of those deaths were in low- to middle-income countries. WHO states that air pollution is the "single biggest environmental health risk."

"The risks from air pollution are now far greater than previously thought or understood, particularly for heart disease and strokes,' said Dr. Maria Neira, director of WHO's department for public health, environmental and social determinants of health. 'Few risks have a greater impact on global health today than air pollution; the evidence signals the need for concerted action to clean up the air we all breathe.'"6

The new estimates are not based on rising pollution, but rather on a better understanding of the links between air pollution and disease. A 2008 report from WHO estimated 1.3 million deaths related to pollution, while the 2012 report estimated 3.7 million deaths.7 In 2013, WHO officially classified air pollution as a carcinogen linked to lung cancer and bladder cancer.8 The American Lung Association reports that air pollution may be associated with:9

Developmental delays in children

Premature death

Reproductive health problems


Increased susceptibility to infections

Wheezing and shortness of breath

Lung cancer

Lung tissue redness and swelling

Cardiovascular health concerns

What Can You Do?

Although you might imagine you don't have too much control in reducing air pollution, there are several things you can do to impact your immediate environment, reduce your exposure and change the way large industries pollute the air around you. Each time you use the heat or air conditioning, drive your car or style your hair, you are making choices that affect the quality of the air around you and your neighbors.

Conserve energy at home by turning off lights, computers and digital equipment when not in use.

Use energy-efficient light bulbs and appliances.

Limit the amount of driving by carpooling, biking or walking. Condense errands to one trip.

Keep your car well maintained to reduce emissions and avoid excessive idling.

Keep your tires properly inflated to use less gas.

Don't buy more cars than you need. Four-wheel drive, engine size, vehicle size and tire size all contribute to the amount of gas you burn with each trip.

Convert your wood-burning fireplace to natural gas or propane.

Use a programmable thermostat at home.

Use electric or hand-powered lawn equipment.

Run your appliances — such as dishwasher, washing machine and dryer — only when full.

Ask your energy supplier for a home audit to learn how you can reduce your energy usage and save on your energy bill too.

Use water-saving devices in your garden; collect rainwater for plants and grow low-water plants.

Compost yard waste instead of burning it; eliminate burning leaves, wood and garbage.

Use compost to reduce weeds and maintain moisture in your garden.

Use water solvent paints.

Switch to environmentally safe cleaners for your home and garage to reduce volatile organic compounds released in your home.

Recycle paper, plastic, glass, cardboard and aluminum cans to conserve energy.

Lower your water heater thermostat to 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

Be an advocate for emission reductions from power plants and strict national vehicle emission standards.